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1st-generation college students struggled to get to school — now they are struggling at home: ‘I miss going to classes’

“All the layers of difficulty these students face are just on top of each other right now,” says Bridgette Davis, a doctoral student at University of Chicago who is studying these students.

Cristal Caballero, a 20-year-old junior at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, poses on campus shortly after arriving for the school’s fall semester.
Cristal Caballero, a 20-year-old junior at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, poses on campus shortly after arriving for the school’s fall semester.
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Vanessa Bynum had just finished her classes for the day when her university sent an email to students letting them know the first case of COVID-19 had been reported off campus.

Now, Bynum, a first-generation college student attending the University of Arkansas in Pine Bluff, is back in Chicago. But she is unable to move back in with her family, so she’s been couch surfing at the homes of friends while trying to find a job and keep up with her school work.

The coronavirus pandemic has left college students like Bynum particularly vulnerable, said Bridgette Davis, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago who studies first-generation, low-income college students as they make the transition from high school to higher education.

“All the layers of difficulty these students face are just on top of each other right now,” Davis said. “Think about something as simple as just having your own room to study when you get home.”

Vanessa Bynum, a 19-year-old freshman on campus at the University of Arkansas in Pine Bluff.
Vanessa Bynum, a 19-year-old freshman on campus at the University of Arkansas in Pine Bluff.
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Bynum, 19, said that when the university told students they needed to pack up their belongings and move off campus, “My first thought was that I didn’t have the finances to do that.”

Most of Bynum’s belongings are still in her dorm room.

“I’m still trying to get everything in one place,” Bynum said.

‘It’s hard to explain’

Daphne Harris, who returned home to Chatham while in her first year at Benedict College in South Carolina, said one of the hardest parts is the profound sense of disappointment she feels of having to leave campus after she accomplished so much just to enroll there in the first place. And she feels guilty about having those feelings because she realizes the whole city is being impacted by the virus, with some obviously getting hit far harder.

“It’s hard to explain,” said Harris, 18. “I know people are losing their jobs. But I miss going to classes. I miss just doing spontaneous stuff with my friends.”

Davis said that feeling is common, especially among students who don’t have family that have also experienced college life.

“Not only are they coming back home from where they had a high degree of freedom and a high degree of focus on themselves and their academics, they are having to shift back to the role they used to play in their family, while studying and using this new online forum,” Davis said.

Harris said living at home again for her can be challenging: Her two teenage brothers are also out of school, which doesn’t make it any easier to get work done.

“I’m trying to stay focused, but there can be a lot going on [at home],” she said.

Daphne Harris, 18, a freshman at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, on campus last fall.
Daphne Harris, 18, a freshman at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, on campus last fall.
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‘We don’t have the same resources at home’

When 20-year-old Cristal Caballero logged on for her first day of remote-learning classes on Monday through the University of Illinois, her home WiFi sputtered to a halt.

Caballero, who is used to having access to fast internet access when she is at the Urbana-Champaign campus, said her family’s WiFi network at their Gage Park home was unable to keep up with the data-hungry video-conferencing app she needed to participate in her online courses.

“We don’t have the same resources at home as we have at U. of I.,” Caballero said. “I know students who don’t have Wifi at home.”

To that end, U. of I. officials said this week they would be sending WiFi hotspots and computers to students who need them.

Caballero has called on university officials to do more to support first-generation and low-income students like her, including returning some student fees and tuition.

“I’m not using the library, I’m not using the health center. ... People assume we don’t pay for anything out of pocket, but we do.”

Bynum, who struggled to adapt to college her first semester, said she learned to rely on the school library — a key resource she doesn’t have access to back home.

“We had a huge library” on campus, agreed Harris. “But they’re all closed here.”

‘Communication is key’

Davis says schools need to do more to reach out to students to make sure they know everything available to help them out.

“These students are already in a situations where this first semester was already high-stakes,” Davis said. “Communication is key.”

What is helping the students get by is their determination — the fact they got to college despite the obstacles shows how committed and hardworking they are, Davis said.

“I need this degree to make the life I want for myself,” Bynum said. “I might be struggling, but it takes struggle to get what you want.”