Meet the First-Gen College Students
Statistically, the odds tend to be stacked against students whose parents did not attend college.
First-generation college students are less likely to complete their college degrees in six years compared with their peers whose parents did attend college, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute. Also, first-generation college students are more likely to need remedial classes, attend two-year schools and struggle with English.
Stats like that are why students such as Kenny Tran and Yereida Gallardo stand out.
Yereida was the first in her family to not only attend college but to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Kenny’s older sister graduated from college, yet since Tran’s parents did not, he is still considered a first-generation college grad. Yeredia and Kenny both graduated in 2016.
Now, they are taking their education a step further by working on master’s degrees in biotechnology from Johns Hopkins University, where they are enrolled in the Health Science Intensive (HSI) program.
HSI courses are held on the Montgomery County Campus. The idea behind the program is to give students the opportunity to enroll in rigorous courses in the life sciences to prove their aptitude to study medicine. The hope is that after completing HSI, students will be attractive medical school candidates.
Yereida and Kenny have their eyes set on medical school.
Here are their stories:
Kenny’s parents grew up in Vietnam and came to the United States when they were in their 20s. Kenny’s father, Duc, was sponsored by his sister; his mother, Lang, was a stowaway on a ship.
According to Kenny, Lang grew up very poor and didn’t go to school. She and her 11 siblings would walk around begging for food. Duc grew up without a father. He attended high school but didn’t go beyond a secondary education.
Kenny grew up in the Tampa Bay area, where his parents are nail technicians.
“When we were younger, my parents didn’t say much about how important school was, but my sister got straight A’s,” Kenny said.
When he started elementary school, he participated in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program; his English was limited because his parents spoke Vietnamese. He said he didn’t even hear English until he was 5, when his elder sister started school.
Kenny said his struggles with school peaked in fourth grade because of the language barrier. “Even to this day, I have problems understanding the language.” His fifth-grade teacher noticed he was having a hard time so she put him in an extra help reading program and “never made me feel stupid.”
By middle school, Kenny realized math was his forte.
“It was like a puzzle,” he said. “Math is the same no matter what country you are from or language you speak.”
Math, he said, helped him develop critical thinking skills. Playing several musical instruments in band, including the clarinet, tuba and trumpet, boosted his confidence.
By the time he was ready for high school, he signed up for the academically challenging International Baccalaureate program. “That really helped me,” he said. “It forced me to have a big course load and be busy with school rather than video games.”
His older sister graduated from college but decided not to participate in the graduation ceremony. Kenny knew his own graduation from the University of South Florida was something he couldn’t skip.
“My parents were proud of me for getting my degree,” said Kenny, who received his degree in public health and biomedical sciences. “I was really proud of myself.”
Now 23, Kenny has his sights set on becoming an anesthesiologist and perhaps pursuing a Ph.D. because he is interested in drug discovery and development.
He is enjoying his time at the Montgomery County Campus and has volunteered at several campus-organized events for elementary school students.
“My whole thing is helping the future generations,” Kenny said. “I want to inspire people to do their best.”
Yereida’s parents are from a tiny rural village in Mexico, Santa Rose de Lima. As she describes it, people there tend to cows and corn.
Yereida’s mother, Maria, was pulled out of school when she was in third grade. The eldest of 10 siblings, Maria was needed to help out around the house.
Her father, Enrique, had several siblings as well, and his father died young. Enrique only had a few years of formal education.
Yereida was born in Mexico and moved when she was 4 to Little Village, a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago. Her parents didn’t speak any English.
Yereida knew the value of education. She often heard her mother say if she had had more education, she’d be working a different job. When Yereida visited her extended family in Mexico, they would talk about their calloused hands and told Yereida that with education, she could work a job that wouldn’t be tough on her skin.
“I knew how important it was to them for me to do well,” Yereida said of her parents. “I didn’t want to come home with F’s and for them to be disappointed about it.”
Her eldest brother attended trade school. Another older brother received a G.E.D. Her twin brother did a semester at a community college but did not continue. Her younger brother is in fifth grade.
Was her family proud of her for graduating college?
“They were just proud of me for getting into college,” she said.
Yereida graduated from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s in cognitive neuroscience. As she pursued the rigorous college application process and a four-year degree, “I wished my parents had gone to college to guide me on what I should be focused on.” She said she wishes there had been more mentorship opportunities where she could have been paired with other first-generation college students.
The aspiring neurologist expresses gratitude for being able to accomplish what she has, and she is involved with a student community service group at the JHU Montgomery County Campus. She also volunteers at a health clinic in Rockville, serving as a Spanish/ English interpreter.
Her advice to others in her shoes?
“Don’t be intimidated by other people. At the end of the day, it’ll come down to how hard you work for it.”