They're the first to go to college

Juventino Meza
Juventino Meza spoke no English when he arrived from Mexico in 2003. He took English language classes and eventually graduated from Arlington High in St. Paul, when he was 19.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Juventino Meza strolled into a courtyard - also known as the Quad - at Augsburg College, and pointed to some of his favorite brick buildings.

"That window right there is the president's office," Meza said. "He's friendly. He's pretty cool. I really like him."

And like a true Auggie ambassador, Meza, 20, spoke proudly of these buildings, in a way that none of his relatives could ever understand.

Days before beginning his sophomore year, Meza said being the first person in his family to attend college became a challenge years before he stepped foot on campus last summer.

And he's not alone.

Juventino Meza
Juventino Meza remembers his my mom telling him that his family wouldn't be able to help him much and he saw that as a challenge. He's double majoring in sociology, and justice and peace studies and will be taking all honors classes this year.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

About one fourth of the state's undergraduates are the first in their families to go to college, according to a 2004 survey of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

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That figure also holds true at Augsburg. In Meza's freshman class, 90 of the 410 students were the first in their families to ever navigate through college.

For Meza, the challenges started in 2003, when he arrived in Minnesota from Mexico. Meza spoke no English and was held back two academic years. He took English as a Second Language courses and eventually mainstreamed into regular classes at Arlington High in St. Paul.

All around him, he felt the pressure to put more emphasis on finding a job than focusing on school.

His older sisters dropped out of high school and never got their GEDs. His dad and other male relatives worked long hours in physical jobs as construction workers. Meza knew he didn't want that kind of a life.

"I definitely saw that with my siblings. I saw that with my friends," Meza said. "And I was probably close to going that path but I always liked school, but it was hard, you know, trying to finish every year, with good grades."

To stay in school, Meza surrounded himself with a group of supportive guidance counselors and teachers. He also joined Admission Possible, a college readiness program for low-income juniors and seniors.

In 2007, he became the first person in his family to graduate from high school.

As he headed for college last summer, he realized he simply didn't want to work as hard as his dad.

"The biggest barrier to college education for first-generation students is sort of feeling of being a fraud."

"A lot of people also have generalized things like 'Oh, you Mexicans are really hard workers'," Meza said. "Sure. But I like to think of myself as 'No, I'm a lazy bum' or 'I like to sit and read.' And when that actually takes you further than working so hard, I feel like I'm capable just like anyone else, to be able to become a CEO or start my own organization."

According to state estimates, Meza was one of nearly 59,000 new students who entered Minnesota's colleges last fall. About the same amount is expected this year.

Alyson Olson is the director of the Trio Student Support Services at the college. It's a national, federally-funded program for first-generation college students. She said one of the biggest hurdles is getting these students to truly believe they deserve to belong in college.

"The biggest barrier to college education for first-generation students is sort of feeling of being a fraud," Olson said. "A lot of times, first generation college students feel like, 'I've made it this far, I'm kind of fooling people. They're going to find me out any day now, that I don't really belong here.' And they get those messages of not belonging in so many different, subtle ways."

Olson said keeping these students in school is also a challenge.

At Augsburg, the entering classes of 2002 to 2006 had an average freshman-to-sophomore retention rate of about 81 percent for all four-year students. That number dropped to 76 percent for first-generation students.

And when those figures are calculated on a six-year graduation rate, retention dropped even further -- to 51 percent -- for first-generation students.

"It's somebody going into the unknown," said Jennifer Godinez, executive director of the Minnesota College Access Network.

The advocacy group bring together campus organizations that help minority and low-income students go to college.

Godinez said these support groups are vital for first-generation students because they offer them valuable insight into the college experience.

"What a lot of the programs provide is exactly what the students are missing, which is college knowledge," Godinez said. "The real understanding of not only the technical aspects of getting to college - how to apply, the financial aide aspects, how to choose a career, those more technical pieces - but also the social aspects, being motivated, having people telling them they can do it, they can get there."

Back on campus on a recent afternoon, Meza logged onto a computer terminal inside the library. He printed out his fall class schedule, before heading to the bookstore to tally up the cost of the books for this semester.

As he walked around the college, he remembered a conversation he had with his mom this time last year.

"I remember my mom telling me, 'It's your decision, really. It's something we don't know much about, we can't help you, and we don't have the money to help you either, to do any of this'," he said.

So he took it as a challenge.

Now, he's double majoring in sociology and justice and peace studies. He'll be taking all honors classes this year and hopes to go to graduate school one day.

He's also discovered the lighter side of college life - he joined student government, founded the Spanish Club, and volunteers at a nearby church as an English tutor.

As for his grades, Meza said he has to keep his GPA high in order to continue qualifying for financial aid and scholarship money.

And he said he's not waiting until he graduates in 2011 to start talking to his two younger siblings about the importance of going to college.