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'It's really hard to keep myself in that mentality of school:' A look at some of the challenges first-generation students face

Jocelyn Gonzalez is adjusting to living back home after CU Boulder moved to remote learning for the second time during the pandemic

DENVER — The Denver Scholarship Foundation (DSF) has a lofty goal: to provide tools, knowledge and financial resources necessary for education after high school to people like Jocelyn Gonzalez. 

“In high school, there were so many amazing resources,” Gonzalez said.  “At the DSF Future Center, so many people were there that understood you didn’t know what you were doing.”

The DSF has helped Denver Public Schools (DPS) students for 14 years, and serves about 7,500 students through Future Centers that serve 22 high schools. 

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“About 88% of our scholars are first-generation,” said DSF CEO Lorii Rabinowitz.  “We work closely with every senior in the high school to talk about the best academic, financial and social fit post high school so that our students are set up for success.”

Credit: Byron Reed

Gonzalez is a DSF Scholarship award winner and a first-generation student from Denver who recently graduated from John F. Kennedy High School.  

Now, she’s a freshman at CU Boulder majoring in architectural engineering. 

Gonzalez started classes on campus back in August, but recently moved back home to Denver with her family to finish her first semester after the university shifted to remote learning for the second time amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We’re officially home now, so we’re not on campus anymore,” Gonzalez said.  “All classes went remote as of Nov. 16 and around Thanksgiving week, everyone had to move back home.”

Credit: Byron Reed

She said moving back home has been an adjustment after feeling like she was starting to fit in on the campus in Boulder.

“Just being here (at home), it feels like a vacation still so it’s really hard to get myself back to getting up on time to go to class and studying and not forgetting about assignments.” Gonzalez said. 

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Gonzalez has been helping at home to help support her family while also studying for finals. 

“It’s just little things, like taking my brother to work or helping my mom babysit the children when she has to go get groceries," she said. "Little things like that that I wasn’t used to doing that because I was over there for so long that I’m back here and I’m like ‘Oh, I forgot I had to do all these things too'.”

Credit: Byron Reed

She said she was having second thoughts about going away to college.  She knew that she wanted to stay closer to home so she can continue to help her parents but was concerned about the financial burden of tuition and room and board.  

It’s a challenge some first-generation students face going into college.

“Some of our students are not only taking courses, working part-time, but also may be responsible for the care of their siblings at home,” said Rigo Rangel, the student services manager for the Latin American Educational Foundation (LAEF). 

LAEF focuses on providing Hispanic and Latino students access to higher education. Rangel said these are some of the hurdles he’s seeing some first-generation students face.

“We’re having to help students navigate that relationship and their living situations so they could continue to do their work, continue to participate in classes, be successful but at the same time, also figure out ways that they could continue to support their parents,” Rangel said. 

Rabinowitz agrees these are issues most first-generation students like Gonzalez face going through the DSF program. 

“Many of our scholars work outside of school as well, so how am I balancing that, family responsibilities and friends and clubs and other engagements and so the juggling is real, and our scholars are well equipped," she said. 

Credit: Byron Reed

These issues have shaped Gonzalez's first year of college as she adapts to a new part of her journey at home with her family. 

“It definitely makes me more motivated to do my work when I know that they’re watching me and they’re proud,” Gonzalez said.  “Nothing helps better than knowing you’re not alone.”

The Denver Scholarship Foundation has invited 9NEWS to follow Jocelyn her first few months of college to give some insight to what some first-generation students face.  Next month, we will begin following another first-generation DSF scholar during his freshman year at CU Denver. 

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