First-generation college students struggle with finals

Posted: Wednesday, January 14, 2004

EDITOR'S NOTE This is another story in an occasional series over this academic year about Victor Nivar and Danny Hernandez, freshmen at Kutztown University. Like tens of thousands of other freshmen this fall, they are the first in their families to go to college.

KUTZTOWN, Pa. Anticipating good news, Victor Nivar leaped over a row of seats and bounded up the steps of the lecture hall, positioning himself among the first to check the psychology exam scores posted on the rear wall.

Moments later, disconsolate, he sunk back in his seat.

''Thought I did better,'' the Kutztown University freshman muttered.

Victor drew little solace from learning that nearly everyone else in class also had fared poorly on the second psychology test. Instead, his borderline ''C'' when he expected a ''B'' or better served as yet another reminder of the distance between high school and college academics.

For Victor and his best friend and roommate, Danny Hernandez, the first semester of college became nothing less than an all-out battle to bridge that gap.

It was a challenge that both young men underestimated at first perhaps because they had already surmounted great obstacles to become the first in their respective families to attend college.

Victor's life was shattered when, as a boy, he and his family witnessed the slaying of his father on a street in the Bronx.

His family soon moved to a public housing project in eastern Pennsylvania's blue-collar Bethlehem, where Danny already lived. With the help of his mother, counselors and a dedicated middle school teacher, Victor fought through the tragedy to earn the grades necessary to start classes last August at Kutztown.

Danny worked all the way through high school to help support his family financially. He was devastated when his parents split up during his sophomore year, and college didn't even appear on Danny's radar screen until he was a senior.

''In high school I was just trying hard to get through high school rather than worry about my grades,'' he said. ''Now, I actually go for the grades rather than to try to just get through college.''

Throughout the semester, the roommates fretted about families left behind in Bethlehem and how to pay for college. But as final exams approached in mid-December, all other worries paled next to the fear of flunking out.

Such concerns are common among first generation students who come to college from underperforming school districts they almost always hit academic roadblocks, said Gail Barker, the director of student support services at Purdue University-North Central in Westville, Ind.

''In high school, they're not challenged enough,'' said Barker. ''Then, in college, they are expected to think independently and to be responsible for academics. Some students find that adjustment difficult in the first year.''

Victor's and Danny's course loads were that much tougher because each weekend they returned home about a 45-minute drive away. Victor would split time between studying and visits with family and friends. In addition to his studies and visits, Danny also worked up to 25 hours at an auto supply store.

The regimen left Danny with unrelenting headaches and Victor unable to fight off an equally persistent cold.

Yet each passing week found them slipping more comfortably into the role of college students. Gradually, the unfamiliar became routine. Where once they needed a map to guide them from Point A to Point B on campus, by midsemester the pair navigated between buildings via shortcuts.

And the strange faces they encountered in August became classmates sometimes greeted by name.

Anthony Antonio, the assistant director of the Institute for Higher Education at Stanford University, said there is a strong tie between feeling comfortable on campus and academic achievement. ''If you don't make that connection, and don't feel accepted, then there is less reason for you to be committed to academics,'' he said.

For Victor, staying in school still meant sacrificing two classes.

He'd planned on enrolling in a full-load of five courses. Then, at freshmen orientation in late August, Billy Staples the Bethlehem teacher who nurtured Victor and pushed him toward college changed his protg's mind.

''At the start, it's easier to juggle four balls than five,'' Staples advised Victor as they studied class schedules. A little over two months later, Victor was juggling only three balls.

Although his composition and Amer-ican government classes were demanding, Victor quickly determined that hard work would earn him at least a ''B'' in both courses.

The special challenge presented by psychology was offset by Victor's enthusiasm for the lectures and course work that taught him about himself as well as the subject. To Victor, every class reinforced the decision to make psychology his major.

From the outset, though, he struggled in math a subject that had also perplexed him in high school. Finally, after weeks of soul-searching, he dropped the class.

To prepare for taking the course a second time next summer, Victor continued to show up for the 8 a.m. lecture every Monday and Wednesday morning.

''I don't feel like I failed,'' he said. ''If I'd kept the class, I would have wound up with a low grade point average. I would have been lucky to get a 'D.' I know it was the best decision.''

Barker, who works closely with first generation students at Purdue-North Central, sympathized with the decision, calling it an example of how college helps students mature.

''Sometimes the stigma of dropping a class or failing it means to them that they're not meant to be in college,'' she said.

''But it's OK to drop a class. It doesn't mean you're a failure.''

Although he hated every minute of it, Danny acknowledged the four weeks he spent on campus in a college preparatory program last summer gave him an academic advantage over Victor.

Homesick and exhausted the entire time he commuted from a Kutztown dorm to the auto parts store, where he was working full time the program led Danny to question his commitment to being the first in his family to pursue a college degree.

Nonetheless, the program worked. It taught him better study habits and took the edge off the homesickness that plagued Victor during the first weeks of school.

''Even though I had to be here this summer, it's worth it now,'' Danny said.

Returning to campus each Sunday night after serving customers all weekend, Danny applied the same work ethic to the full load of five classes he took during the fall semester.

At Kutztown, the computer science major immersed himself so deeply in textbooks and composition papers that his life as a college student was largely limited to the dorm, library and classrooms. By semester's end, neither Danny or Victor had visited downtown Kutztown, a mere four blocks away from their residence hall.

Mirroring Victor's love for his psychology course, Danny quickly took to sociology, a class that taught him to better understand the dynamics of his family and the odds of a Latino male graduating from college.

''That told me that if I get a degree, as a Hispanic, it will be really special,'' he said. ''That summed it all up for me. I have to graduate from here.''

The first real step to achieving that objective came with final exams.

It was a rite of passage that, following the Thanksgiving weekend, kicked the transition from tentative freshmen to full-fledged college students into overdrive.

Facing finals during the second week of December, the roommates stopped operating on conventional time; they studied half the night and then picked up their books as soon as they awoke the next morning.

A second floor corner of Rohrbach Library a refuge from the constant hum of activity in the dormitory became a favorite campus haunt.

When the school year began, Danny and Victor thought an hour of studying each day was sufficient. By October, they were up to three hours. In December, a moment spent without reviewing a textbook seemed to tempt fate.

''I don't even want to think about how many hours I'm putting in every day,'' Victor said.

The payoff came when Kutztown delivered grades over the Internet during Christmas break: A 3.2 grade point average for Danny, and a 3.3 GPA for Victor.



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