Jessica, First-Generation College Student, HWA Alum

Jessica, First-Generation College Student, HWA Alum

Jessica with HWA Director Vicky Valentine.

“I had never seen anyone in my family or community attend college and successfully build a career.” 

Jessica is a 26-year-old alumna from the inaugural cohort of HWA-SF. She is a first-generation college student and young mother, who has been pursuing her college degree from UC Berkeley since 2009.  As a nontraditional student, she has encountered several barriers to completing her degree, including financial, academic, and personal challenges. Despite these barriers, Jessica’s journey is an example of resilience, strength, and passion.

Jessica joined HWA in 2007 and says the program propelled her academic career forward. Her parents emigrated from Central America as teens and weren’t familiar with the college application process in the U.S. She received SAT prep, tutoring, and support with personal statements from HWA.  In addition, she participated in public health internships provided by HWA and became a Peer Health Educator at Huckleberry’s Cole Street Youth Clinic.  

During her senior year of high school, Jessica received a full scholarship to UC Berkeley.  She had a difficult transition to college. She experienced what many first-generation, students of color experience – “Imposter Syndrome” – an inability to internalize accomplishments and fear of being exposed as a fraud.  She had been a high achieving student in high school, but realized her school had not fully prepared her for college-level courses.  In addition, the competitive college environment discouraged her from seeking help. She felt extremely alone and did not have a community of like-minded peers.

Jessica and her daughter.

Shortly before beginning her second year of college, Jessica learned she was pregnant. Though she did not plan to drop out, she decided to temporarily withdraw from school to focus on a healthy pregnancy. Though returning to school as a young, single mother was difficult, Jessica soon developed a routine and excelled in her courses. Towards the end of her undergraduate career, Jessica began to feel discouraged by her rigorous coursework and limited finances. With a growing daughter and constantly changing class schedule, she often found it hard to balance her academic coursework alongside her parenting responsibilities. She made the decision to postpone her degree to pursue a full-time job.

Jessica was laid off at work and re-enrolled in a senior seminar course at UC Berkeley, hoping to complete her degree. Her ultimate goal is to obtain a master’s in public health and hold a senior level position in the healthcare industry.

Jessica’s story is an example of the unique challenges low-income, first-generation, students encounter in pursuing a higher education.  Despite significant challenges, students like Jessica exemplify resilience, persistence, and strength.

Obstacles Faced by First-Generation College Students:

  • English is not the first language for nearly 20% of first-generation students
  • Financial hardships, i.e., the ability to afford expensive books and housing. First-generation college students are borrowing from the federal government at increasing rates to pay for education (from 15% in ‘97 to 37% in 2013, according to the Postsecondary National College Institute)
  • Responsibilities at home, including cultural expectations that may conflict with pursuing postsecondary education
  • Lack of mentors and mentorship & lack of diversity in higher education
  • “Imposter Syndrome” and a feeling of not belonging

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