First-generation, immigrant, and international college students routinely face special challenges during their college experiences -- being away from family and friends, not having easy access to familiar culture, food, or community, and dealing with routine as well as sudden economic hardships.
As a result, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, first-generation college students are less likely to complete their degrees within six years, compared to other scholars. Many additionally have a hard time with the application and financial aid processes because their parents cannot guide them.
Throw in COVID-19 and their difficulties intensify in ways that others may not realize or even be able to imagine.
To help readers better understand their special circumstances, the Helios Education Foundation has asked 83 Degrees Media to tell these student stories.
Below is a report by Angela Cordoba Perez, a senior studying mass communications and journalism at the University of South Florida, written for 83 Degrees Media, to better tell student stories.
Jessica Muniz, a 20-year-old Mexican-American first-generation student who finished her Associate’s Degree at Valencia College in Orlando this spring, is transferring to the University of Central Florida in the fall in hopes of eventually becoming a teacher.
Since she was a small child, she and her older sister have always acted as the family’s interpreters to help their Spanish-speaking parents understand and communicate in a predominately English-speaking society. Even though her parents support her educational choices, the language barrier means she has gone through school mostly without the kind of parental guidance many take for granted.
“Ever since I've been in elementary school, I've kind of been helping myself. So receiving help is kind of hard. So when I would find something with a class, like, if I wasn't passing or if I needed extra tutoring, I wouldn’t reach out to an adviser,’’ Muniz says. "I would want to solve it myself.”
“Because ever since I was little, you know, I've been reading my own papers, I've been going to conferences with my parents, I've been doing it all myself. So kinda receiving help was like, I'd rather do it myself first and then reach out to get help. I think that [asking for and accepting help] was the hardest. Accepting that I should make time and go talk to someone to make sure I’m, like, falling into the right path.”
After Muniz acknowledged that she couldn’t do everything independently and that she needed help, especially in the paperwork and process surrounding getting a degree and transferring to a new college, COVID-19 arrived this past spring, making things even more difficult. At that time, she didn’t have in-person resources at Valencia to help her with her transfer, and she wasn’t yet able to access the resources that UCF offered.
“I think what was the hardest was that when you go into education, you have to take a general knowledge test. And because of the virus, they weren't testing anywhere. So I couldn't talk to an adviser at UCF because I had to wait until my orientation to talk to an adviser. And I couldn't talk to an adviser at Valencia because they don't have an education adviser anymore; they have the general adviser.”
Because of the isolation that COVID caused, figuring out the correct steps to take to transfer to UCF became even more difficult. While at Valencia, she would rely on her sister’s experience going there ahead of her. But her sister couldn't help much with UCF because she had never been a student at the University. Muniz sought help from high school friends who go to other colleges and understand the process of transferring. However, she knew each college has specific requirements and guidelines. Overall, she spent a lot of time trying to find the appropriate advice all by herself working remotely from her home.
“It's been kind of difficult and confusing. At Valencia, it was much easier because I had my older sister, and we were kind of in it together,” Muniz says. “She would teach me how to register for classes and pay off stuff. … I never really learned how to do FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), so I never really got any’’ financial assistance.
The orientation Muniz attended at UCF was non-traditional in that due to COVID-19, she had to do it online. She says this made registration for her classes harder, and she just chose the professors who showed up on her computer screen without knowing much about them or the class.
“I believe when you have an orientation in person, they kind of like, pull it up on the screen and they show you how to do it, how to register. But online, it was confusing because I'm a transfer student so I had to do a three-part orientation before my regular orientation and it was just confusing,” says Muniz.
The stress of transferring through remote processes, workshops, and orientations increased the pressure she feels because of her family’s high hopes and expectations. As a first-generation college student, they want her to succeed in her studies, but sometimes this stresses her even more.
“I've totally felt pressure because it's kind of hard when they're putting everything on me. They're watching me, they want me to pass, they want me to do this. It gets kind of overwhelming sometimes because a lot of people don't understand the pressure sometimes that I get,” says Muniz. “I don't want to disappoint them, so I try hard. But I think it goes to them also being immigrants and a lot of people, they don't understand that. My friends are not first-generation like me, so it's not something they can relate to.”
Transitioning from a community college to a bigger university is not easy for anyone. Muniz says some people have told her that classes are harder and she thinks that this might be the biggest challenge she faces while also enduring the effects of the pandemic. Having to study remotely is not the most comfortable option for many students, but she hopes she can at least meet people from her program.
“I hope it works out because sometimes it's hard. You know, my mom could be like screaming outside if she doesn't know that I'm in class. I'll tell her that I'm doing something but she'll forget and come in,” says Muniz. “I hope I do good because sometimes when you're in a classroom, it kind of works better with focus and stuff.”
Donations to support University of Central Florida students can be made through the UCF Foundation.
Readers can help first-generation and other University of South Florida students through several funds designed to support everything from basic needs to scholarships to diversity initiatives, research, COVID relief, and more. To donate, visit the USF Foundation online.
This series of stories on COVID-19's impact on first-generation, immigrant, and international college students in Florida is made possible with funding from the Helios Education Foundation, a private foundation dedicated to creating opportunities for individuals in Arizona and Florida to succeed in postsecondary education, and from the Google News Initiative's Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.