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SMC first-generation students comment on lack of resources, diversity on campus

| Friday, April 26, 2019

“I wasn’t surprised.”

That was the typical response from many of the low-income, DACA and first-generation students at Saint Mary’s when asked their thoughts on the college admissions cheating scandal. While Saint Mary’s was not implicated, many Belles have strong opinions on the admissions process and the greater significance of the scandal.

Saint Mary’s senior Teresa Brickey, a first-generation and low-income student, said the issue of the cheating scandal is relevant to the tri-campus community and that some wealthy students are “allotted certain privileges.”

“Honestly, this college acceptance scandal is nothing new —  people just got publicly caught,” she said. “The college scandal reaffirms the fact that higher institutions are created and sustained for a certain class of people. What the scandal highlights is the fact that a student can be mediocre, but if their parents’ bank account is big enough, then that doesn’t matter.”

Damariz Olguin, a Saint Mary’s first-year, said she agrees.

“It’s been happening for years — even in politics it happens,” she said.

Olguin, a first-generation and low-income student, said it was interesting that most of the institutions implicated in the scandal were PWIs.

“PWI” stands for “predominantly white institution” — an accurate descriptor for Saint Mary’s, Olguin said.

“I wasn’t surprised that there were so few first-generation students here, but I was surprised that Saint Mary’s was a PWI,” she said.

Junior Genesis Vasquez, a first-generation student, said she feels similarly. She said the history of higher institutional learning is entrenched in the exclusion of underrepresented populations, as most colleges were initially created for upper-middle-class, white students.

“I was shocked at the scandal, but at the same time, I really wasn’t,” she said. “Higher institutions were not made for students of color, or first-generation students or students living in poverty.”

Nevertheless, the College’s population of first-generation students continues to grow. Gloria Jenkins, dean of students, said in an email Saint Mary’s is continuously trying to create more opportunities to support first-generation students.

“Currently, 27% of our student population is first-generation and 34% of our first-year students are first-generation, so we recognize the need to continue to support our students,” she said.

Yet, Olguin said it was hard, at first, to find fellow first-generation students on campus. Although the College offers the “Belles Connect” program for first-generation, underrepresented, home-schooled and international students, Olguin said it was not explicitly advertised.

“First-generation freshmen are allowed to come to campus a week earlier than everyone else for ‘Belles Connect,’” she said. “Except they’re not great at telling students how to sign up for it.”

Olguin said living on campus early would have been beneficial, as she said she chose to attend Saint Mary’s without ever having seen the campus before. Since she is a first-generation student, she did not know what college life would be like and if she would fit in on campus, she said.

Vasquez said she did participate in “Belles Connect,” but it was only by chance that she stumbled upon the website.

“In high school, I was very active in looking for resources that would help me and I stumbled upon a website for it,” she said. “But, I don’t think it was advertised at all. I know a lot of people who would’ve applied had they known about ‘Belles Connect.’”

Jenkins said only some students are eligible for “Belles Connect,” and there are many reasons why students may not know of, or want to participate in the program.

“Some students miss out on the opportunity for many reasons. For instance, they may have been admitted after the deadline to register for the program was closed or it had reached its capacity,” she said. “Furthermore, I’ve had students tell me they didn’t want to participate because they didn’t want to move in a week earlier and leave home. Finally, some students informed me that their parents did not want them to come or [did not] forward the opportunity to them as they were the ones dealing with all SMC communication.”

And fitting in on campus is not the only struggle these students face; for low-income students, Brickey said, there are some resources that she, and others, are never afforded.

“We, myself included, were never afforded testing prep, tutoring or even the resources to understand admission processes,” she said. “Every year is a constant battle with financial aid offices and balancing an array of issues that our wealthier peers do not have to face. There is a resource gap between the two demographics on campus.”

Vasquez said her biggest challenge has been affording Saint Mary’s.

“Saint Mary’s recruits diverse students, but what are they going to do to ensure that students like me will finish college?” she said. “My biggest challenge has been financially paying for school. I don’t have to pay a lot, but it’s too much money for my parents to afford.”

Like Brickey, Vasquez said finding resources that help her understand the financial aid process has been an uphill battle.

“I’ve definitely asked friends about financial aid and they can’t answer me because their family does their financial aid for them,” she said. “I have to physically go to the financial aid office, and it’s not a problem, but sometimes you don’t want to go out of your way to find an answer.”

While legacy students can fall back on their parents’ assistance when it comes to navigating the application process, Olguin said she had to do everything on her own because her parents, and even her academic counselors, were no help.

“Admissions counselors should help first-generation students with the Common App,” she said. “Certain colleges should notice that if you’re first-generation you might be confused on certain things, so they should reach out directly to those first-generation students.”

Vasquez said sometimes, there are so many challenges stacked against her she feels like dropping out of college entirely.

“I wanted to drop out my sophomore year,” she said. “It was a constant thought in my head and it was something that I did not talk about with anyone. I think that’s often something that students with similar backgrounds to me think about. There are students who are in college and they’ll drop out because their family will need help and they feel like it’s their obligation to go back home and help.”

But, to those students who feel like Vasquez, she said she recommends they seek out help in the form of mentorship and resources. Vasquez said the campus community should also address the emotional need of underrepresented students, as many first-generation students and students of color are often stigmatized for seeking counseling to treat their mental health needs.

“Counseling has helped me so much,” she said. “I’ve had difficulty with mental health and I didn’t start getting help until I got here. Particularly in black and Hispanic communities, mental health is so stigmatized that you’re looked down upon if you have a mental health issue. We need to destigmatize that. Mental health only gets worse when coupled with the stress of academics.”

Olguin said the College community should recognize some students have more privileges than others and that legacy students are “blessed” with an easier college experience.

“It’s hard for us to do it all on our own,” she said.

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About Gina Twardosz

Gina Twardosz is a senior English Writing and Communication Studies double major at Saint Mary's College. She's the co-editor of the Investigative Unit, a Saint Mary's social media liaison, and she occasionally writes for SMC News and Scene. Gina is a tried and true Midwesterner and yes, she does say "ope" often.

Contact Gina