Pride and Pressure: What It Means to Be A First-Generation College Student


When Marlene Castro reflects on her life as a first-generation college student, she remembers the range of emotions that defined her youth – the nervousness of becoming the first in her family to attend college, the elation of getting a full ride to UC Berkeley, the pressure to succeed on campus, and ultimately, pride walking across Berkeley’s stage on graduation day.

In Marlene's community of East Palo Alto, she knew more people who had dropped out of school than had finished their high school degrees. Marlene's mother came to the U.S. alone at 17, and at 18 dropped out of school to care for Marlene. So when staff from College Track gave a presentation about the program to Marlene’s eighth-grade class, she signed up. Much more than just an afterschool program or homework help, College Track became the critical support system she needed.

“College Track was the first place where I was among peers who also cared about school,” Marlene says. “It was the first time I had teachers and mentors who looked like me and understood me. I felt protected and uplifted.”

Marlene Castro shares her story on stage at a Bay Area event supporting local organizations like College Track.

College Track is a non-profit organization dedicated to getting students—particularly first-generation students like Marlene—to and through college. Giving them the academic, financial, and emotional support they need to get accepted, and complete their degree.

Half of College Students Are First-Generation

An estimated 50% of college students are the first in their families to attend college, a staggering number that is on the rise. Being a first-generation college student is an extraordinary achievement; taking them outside their comfort zones to serve as role models and inspiration to parents, younger siblings, and their greater communities. For these first-generation students, college is a chance at opportunity and upward mobility for the whole family. When a first-generation student succeeds, everyone succeeds.

Being awarded access to the world of higher education is complicated, demanding time, finances, and tremendous know-how—a process not exactly designed to help first-generation students flourish. The pressure intensifies in low-income communities where attending college is not an expectation, but an exception. Students must navigate the complex—and competitive—world of testing, advanced classes, applications, financial aid, and college searches with little to no support.

This is compounded by the fact that today's schools are often ill-equipped to give individualized attention. Student-to-guidance-counselor ratios can land in the range of hundreds to one, and oftentimes guidance counselors reserve college preparation efforts for their highest-performing students. Moreover, first-generation students often don't know what questions to ask, or are embarrassed to speak up altogether: How do I get to college? Am I taking the right classes? Will my credits from another school, possibly in another country, transfer?

"I didn't understand what it meant to go to a university, let alone know anyone who had achieved things like that," Marlene says.

These are the types of systemic and resource challenges that College Track helps students tackle head on. Program resources range from tutoring, personal statement writing, and ACT prep, to social-emotional support and college tours. Exposure to unique opportunities such as internships and extra-curriculars encourage students to explore their passions and talents, not only rounding out their experiences for college applications but also developing maturity and confidence as they prepare for their next chapter.

Best Fit College Framework

To ensure students are set up for long-term success, College Track has developed a framework to guide the college selection and application process.

Before launching into research about schools or visiting campuses, students develop their own lists of “needs versus wants” to help them identify and prioritize the schools and attributes that are the best matches. Then, students evaluate individual colleges in three ways:

  1. Graduation Rate

    Does it have a graduation rate above the national average (58%)?

  2. Affordability

    Is the average student debt below $30,000?

  3. Support structures

    Does it have robust support services for first generation college students?

College Track students show off their school choice.

Getting Into College Is Half the Battle... Staying in is Another Question

One study estimates that only 21% of low-income first-generation students actually obtain a college degree.

Which is why across all nine College Track sites, staff are dedicated to getting every student not just to, but through college. Mentor relationships begin during a student’s freshman year in high school and continue through college. This unwavering support system is more than just a comfortable reminder of home—it can be a lifeline, as so many first-generation students report struggling with “imposter syndrome,” the feeling that they don’t belong or are undeserving of the opportunities they’re given.

“I felt I had to prove I deserved my place on that campus and the opportunities I received every day.” Marlene recalls. “As the first in my family to make it to college, I put so much pressure on myself not to fail. It was not an option.”

Marlene turned to her College Track mentors back in East Palo Alto, and they connected her with College Track alumni on her campus. Once again, Marlene was surrounded and supported by students just like her, on the same journey. They figured out how to expand and formalize this network across the UC system. That, Marlene says, is what got her to the Berkeley graduation stage.

College Track By the Numbers

College Track’s goal is to have all students graduate from a four-year institution of higher education. In 2017, 94% of graduates from East Palo Alto, the founding site of College Track, got accepted to four-year institutions with over $300,000 in private scholarship awards.

In the fall of 2017, graduating seniors from the College Track East Palo Alto site plan to attend a variety of institutions.

College Track East Palo Alto's Class of 2017:

First-Generation Professionals Pay It Forward

First-generation students move on to become "first-generation professionals." Navigating new challenges and opportunities their parents never experienced, from onboarding and 401k conversations to professional development in a fast-paced, dynamic, and entrepreneurial work world. That's what makes College Track's 10-year commitment to students so unique: the organization provides continued support to students as they graduate and venture onto a post-school career path.

Once they reach the finish line, many College Track students become determined to give back.

Today, Marlene works in public education. She has served as a fifth-grade teacher, a high school teacher, and a counselor, has worked at an education nonprofit, and has earned a master’s degree.

“I work in public education because in every job I serve students and communities who reflect my own experiences,” she says. “I pay it forward because that’s what College Track taught me.”

Voices of College Track

At Launch to College events—where College Track families and mentors gather to honor and send students off to college—we asked the class of 2017 about their motivations and experiences.