First-gen students face persisting challenges
Ashley Ruano-Hurtarte (Left) and Ashley Bonilla (Right) are first-generation college students studying English at UMBC. Though they faced struggles during the college application process, they were both admitted into UMBC's competitive Humanities Scholars Program. Photo by Alex McKenzie.

First-gen students face persisting challenges

“From the whole process beginning to end it was just me making all of the decisions,” said English major and Spanish minor Ashley Ruano-Hurtarte as she spoke about her college application process. Ruano-Hurtarte is one of many students at UMBC who is the first in her family to attend college.

English major Ashley Bonilla echoed Ruano-Hurtarte’s words. She recalls that while her parents love learning — her dad avidly reads psychology textbooks — they are also immigrants from El Salvador without a college education and could only offer limited time and guidance during college applications.

“When I visited college campuses I would get emotional because I was there [by myself] on school field trips but everyone else went with their parents,” said Bonilla.

Ultimately both Bonilla and Ruano-Hurtarte found mentorship. For Bonilla it was her AP English class, where she received feedback on her college essays. Ruano-Hurtarte entered Adelante La Latina, a program where she received tutoring and mentorship.

This program ultimately directed her to UMBC: “My tutor at Adelante La Latina used to teach here… When I mentioned that I like UMBC he really helped me get to know if I wanted to come here,” Ruano-Hurtarte says.

Nonetheless, she still felt challenged by a slew of foreign decisions. This experience is common according to Corris Davis, the Director of the UMBC Office of Academic Opportunity Programs. “There is a lot of jargon in higher education,” Davis wrote in an email correspondence. “Students don’t know what some terms mean, where to go for what, who to contact, etc.”

The Office of Academic Opportunity and Shriver Center strive to reach first-generation students by exposing Baltimore City youth to educational opportunities before college. Once at UMBC, they can receive specialized advice for first-generation students from UMBC Advising and Orientation or additional preparation for college-level courses in First Year Experience programs supported by the Academic Engagement & Transition Program.

However, issues still plague first-generation students. A poll taken by the Brown Daily Herald in March 2015 reports that first-generation college students are almost twice as likely to feel academically inadequate. Moreover, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness reports that 56 percent of first-generation students are food insecure.

Many UMBC departments are collaborating to address these ongoing problems. Davis writes, “among our early plans are additional focus groups and listening sessions, student representation on the workgroup and activities for the 2018 National First-Generation College Celebration during the first week of November.” In the face of persisting inequality, the effort to mitigate the challenges faced by first-generation students is underway.