How 2 First-Gen College Students Got Into Their Dream Schools

Focus on what drives you, lean on your resources and don’t quit when going through the college admissions process.

Cecilia ClarkMay 15, 2021
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Historically, around 30% of undergraduate students are the first in their family to attend college. And that can leave them lost and behind in the college admissions process.

First-generation college students don’t have the same points of equitable access to college as do other students, says Deana Waintraub Stafford, associate director for the Center for First-generation Student Success.

“There is knowledge that you have as someone who has already attended [college], and you can pass that to someone who is in your family — that is critical to their understanding of the process,” Stafford says. She also says that application fees, standardized testing, admissions essays and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid contribute to the obstacles facing first-generation college students.

Over the last year, those students have had the added challenge of graduating high school and finding a college amid the uncertainties of COVID-19. The pandemic has weighed on college attendance overall, as undergraduate enrollment this spring declined about 6% from the year before.

Yet Fernanda Padilla Colin and Khushi Patel — two first-generation college students determined to achieve higher education — found the inspiration, strength and guidance they needed to land the schools of their dreams. Here’s how.

Focus on what drives you

When Padilla Colin talks about her path to college, she starts with her parents’ decision to leave Mexico for the United States. During the journey, she and her older brother were separated from their mother. “It’s a different level of fear that not a lot of people understand,” she says.

She helped her mother clean houses from the time she was 9 years old, and while she doesn’t diminish the significance of her mother’s work, she decided that she wanted something different for herself and her family.

Her parents pushed education as the path to upward mobility, and Padilla Colin says she grew to adopt their philosophy and apply academic pressure on herself.

She strove to get straight A’s, because she knew she wouldn’t get into college on her background story alone. “A lot of kids have stories similar to mine,” she says. To differentiate herself, she got involved with a cause close to her heart: helping to translate legal documents for immigrants.

This fall, she'll leave her home in Berkeley, California, to attend Rice University on a full scholarship. Rice is her dream school, she says, because it will allow her to study immigration topics and get an education without going into debt or financially burdening her parents.

“It was a big relief that [my parents] didn’t have to pay for my education,” Padilla Colin says. “But even before I got [the scholarship], I told them they were not going to pay for my education. I told them I’m going to college, so I’ll figure it out.”

She acknowledges that others may want to forget their tough pasts, but she uses the past to drive her. Her college admissions coach, Hafeez Lakhani, encouraged her to identify and focus on what really motivates her.

“For me, that’s immigration,” she says.

How to use what drives you

  • Consider challenges in your background or other aspects of your life or environment that you'd like to improve.

  • Brainstorm ways you can contribute to those improvements while in high school. For Padilla Colin, that was helping translate legal documents for immigrants.

  • Use that passion and experience to guide you in the types and number of colleges you apply to and leverage them when building your admissions packet.

Lean into your community

Khushi Patel was born and raised in Michigan and is the child of Indian immigrants. “For most of my life, we lived and worked in a local [Detroit area] motel,” she says.

Though her father graduated from high school in India, her mother stopped attending school after eighth grade. Patel says she felt determined to “escape this sort of generational poverty,” and sees her college education as something she is doing for herself and her parents.

Without academic and college admissions guidance from her parents, Patel looked to others in her community who went to college and could provide a road map. “I really learned to hone in on the resources that I did have,” she says. She talked to college graduates and leaned on teachers and counselors who she knew believed in her.

“I have been here throughout my elementary school, middle school and high school,” Patel says. “We are a low-income school district, and the majority of the school are students of color as well. When someone goes to a four-year college, it is something that is sort of out of the norm.”

By leaning on her community, she was able to identify scholarship and fellowship opportunities that eventually led to her acceptance at Brown University. The scholarships she earned will cover most of the costs.

Brown is her dream school because of the flexibility it offers.

“Brown has an open curriculum that allows students to explore,” she says. “You can take a class in literature while taking a class in robotics.”

How to lean into your community

  • Identify allies who can guide you through the admissions process, like school counselors, teachers or siblings.

  • Ask questions to ensure you understand what's needed in the process and how to boost your chances of success.

  • Get help filling out the FAFSA. The FAFSA is necessary for federal and many other financial aid programs and scholarships.

Don’t quit

Padilla Colin and Patel both experienced setbacks on the road to their dream schools.

Patel’s older brother got into Duke University with a full QuestBridge scholarship; Patel applied for the same program and was denied twice.

“That’s when I thought, ‘OK, it’s over. This program is made for first-generation and low-income students. If I can’t get into this, I’m not going to school,’” she says. Her parents and brother told her the right program would come along, and it did.

“Everyone’s path will look different,” she says. She reminds other students facing setbacks to remain “relentless and fierce.”

Padilla Colin says she initially thought her dream school was Harvard University. “I didn’t have any knowledge of what Harvard really was,” she says.

She decided not to apply there and instead focus on schools that were part of the QuestBridge program. In doing that, she evaluated what she really wanted in a school and realized that her real dream school was one closer to home with a strong immigration research center. Rice rose to the top with its Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

Padilla Colin advises other first-generation students to “be prepared to take advantage of every opportunity.” And she warns that the journey won’t be easy.

“There will be times in the process where you just want to break down. You will have to work hard,” she says before repeating, “You will have to work hard.”

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