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First-Gen Feats: New school year can be challenging for some first-generation students

The Denver Scholarship Foundation wants to share students' experiences to give insight into their challenges.

DENVER — For the past 14 years, the Denver Scholarship Foundation (DSF) has been turning college dreams into a reality for thousands of Denver Public Schools (DPS) students.

The group serves about 7,500 students through Future Centers, which serve 22 DPS high schools.  The goal is to provide tools, knowledge and financial resources necessary for education after high school.

We work with Denver Public Schools students on their journeys to and through college graduation and beyond,” said DSF CEO Lorii Rabinowitz.  “About 88% of our scholars are first-generation and it’s so extraordinary to have the opportunity to work together throughout their post-secondary journey.”

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One of those students is DSF Scholarship award winner Jocelyn Gonzalez, a first-generation student from Denver who recently graduated from John F. Kennedy High School. Her parents are both from Jalisco, Mexico and moved here in 1998 with hopes of a better life for their children. 

“They had a lot of tough times growing up,” Gonzalez said.  “My mom stopped going to school around 6th grade and my father got to 8th grade before he had to leave school as well.”

Credit: Byron Reed

Gonzalez started her freshman year at CU Boulder in August, where she's majoring in architectural engineering.  She’s enrolled as a full-time student taking 16 credit hours and living on a campus that recently went into quarantine because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  She now said taking in-person and online classes are a struggle. 

“Needing that communication with professors and not being able to get it, it just makes classes a little harder and asking for help makes it a little harder,” Gonzalez said.  “I was so concerned with everything…COVID, first-generation, being on a huge campus like this.”

Credit: Byron Reed

Gonzalez said also she knew that she wanted to go to college and stay closer to home to 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.

Credit: Byron Reed

“We see many of our students having to make difficult decisions to be able to either to stay home or find ways to continue to support the household,” said Rigo Rangel, student services manager for the Latin American Educational Foundation (LAEF).  “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.”

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 when they enroll in a primarily white institution.

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“Some of the things that we’re encountering is differences in academic expectations, time management, also some ‘imposter syndrome’ where primarily students of color encounter feel that they’re undeserving of where they are…that their achievements feel like it’s still not enough,” Rangel said. 

Rabinowitz agrees these are issue most first-generation students 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,” she said.

Issues Gonzalez is thinking about the first year of her college career as she tries to navigate a journey her parents will be proud of.  

Credit: Byron Reed

“It’s a lot of pressure at times,” she said.  “It just feels like making their sacrifices all worth it -- even though nothing could ever make their sacrifices worth it -- but it’s a close second, I guess.”

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. 9NEWS will be checking in with her progress once a month for our First-Gen Feats series.

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