Hiding from the Economy With Loans

Dear Student:

I know that the American employment landscape is quite frightening and has been for a while. Friends of mine are moving home to regroup and figure out how to survive while looking for work, or even as full time employees! It is tough for everyone and I want to fully acknowledge that. However, despite how safe school feels you have to go ahead and get out there.

I’m quite saddened and, quite frankly, startled to see young people staying in school unnecessarily to avoid facing the economy. Most colleges only require 120 credits to graduate, but I am seeing students with 150 and more. Some of these students say they are adding a second major to be more competitive. However, I implore you to figure out the long term costs.

Tuition at my institution is quite expensive. Tuition, fees, room and board tops 56 thousand dollars. 56 thousand dollars is more than many Americans earn per year. Staying in school to add extra credits at a cost of 56 thousand dollars does not make long term fiscal sense. Even if your university expenses are less think about what your starting salary may be and how you will pay off that extra year of schooling.

Even though the economy is tough it is better to get out there and start your career and build experience. You may have to live at home and that’s okay. You may have to share an apartment or house with several friends. Again, doing so is okay, and actually pretty fiscally sound if you put away the money you save on rent and pay down student loan or credit card debt contribute to your retirement or put it in a good old savings account.

If you insist on staying in school then I suggest that you earn another credential. Adding credits to your bachelor’s degree does not help in the marketplace. Also, employers may question why you did not graduate on time. Earn a certificate or master’s degree if you can instead. You may not be able to use the graduate education right away, but at least there will be tangible evidence of your extra time in school.



What are your fears about graduating and getting out there? Maybe we can offer some solutions. Leave a comment.

MOOCs and Being First Gen

In our office we recently had our first dust up with MOOCs, or massively open online courseware. A student was attempting to transfer in an edX class and we had to figure out how to explain that this type of credit was not sufficient for our institution.  I have nothing against MOOCs for personal enrichment. edX seems to offer a wonderful array of courses for anyone who wishes to be a lifelong learner. The danger is when students do not know the difference.

Many MOOC sites do explain that their courses may or may not count for academic credit at a traditional college or university, but sometimes this information is hard to find. If you find yourself unsure about your classes and whether they transfer look for a few key things:

  • Are there any admissions requirements? A regionally accredited university requires some sort of documentation that you attended and completed high school or a GED equivalent. This is true of for-profit, online education and traditional non-profit schools. If a site allows you to take classes without any such documentation then it is likely that the site is meant for “fun” and not mean to be transferable.
  •  Are the classes free? With the budget cuts all American colleges are experiencing you can trust and believe that no credit-bearing class is going to be free.
  • Is the site separate from the main university site? Many of these courses are taught by faculty from prestigious institutions such as MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkeley, but unless you have gone through the admissions process at the main university site then you are not enrolling in an actual course from these institutions.

MOOCs are a wonderful way to enrich your life and help you really hone a knowledge base. I liken them to the Khan Academy, which helps refresh a student’s memory on concepts long forgotten, or even reinforces what one learned in traditional classes. However, if your desire is degree attainment then please reach out to the admissions counselor at your local community college, or four-year public or private university.

Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

The season between Thanksgiving and spring semester is usually a joyous break for universities. Students celebrate Chanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or winter solstice after slogging through final exams. Faculty grade final papers and exams and then look forward to the time off. We staff try to take the time we’re in the office to catch up on paperwork. However, not everyone enjoys the slow period between Thanksgiving and New Years and these are the students we need to keep an eye on.

This winter period for some students is the end of their collegiate career. Many students go home and hear from their families that they cannot return to school because the family cannot afford to send them anymore. Although the greater economy has “recovered,” many of my students’ personal economies have not – not at all. Families wait until the student is home to tell them so that they can at least pass their fall classes.

Some students do not receive family or community support to attend school in the first place, and retreat home where they feel valued. Many of these students actually do not return after Thanksgiving. Many times this group includes first generation college students because they are learning new values and cultural norms that may be in conflict with what they learned at home. Families may reject the student for being too “uppity” “brand new” or “out of their place.”

Finally, many students experience depression and suicidal thoughts. They aren’t coping well with school already and the change in the weather to dreary days exacerbates their illness. If grades come in and the student has not done well this problem can descend into deadly territory quickly. Some students do not have consistent families and the cheer and love of the holidays feels like someone is steadily reminding them of their lack.

What should we do as practitioners? Be a bit more mindful that sometimes the grades we see and the excuses we get have some underlying cause. This time of year can be especially frustrating as we get students “grade grubbing” for marks they did not earn, or students come in with problems we could have helped them solve had they talked to us months ago. We not be able to work with every student to become an academic superstar, but we can let them know that no matter the outcome of their grades or academic standing that they are valued as people, and there are options.

Families, and community members, hug your students this winter break. Remind them of why you care for them outside of their accomplishments or lack thereof. If they have not met your expectations certainly remind them of where you stand, but try to be gentle. If your student comes home with “newfangled” ideas talk to them about their new beliefs and see if you can find some way to have a family discussion about your own values with them.

We in academic affairs want all of our students to come back to us in the spring semester, or at least be well enough to live out their dreams through a different path. We want our students to be mentally well and to feel supported. The most wonderful time of the year is not always so wonderful for everyone, so let’s try to help make it a little better where we can.

Square Peg – Round Hole

As a practitioner in higher education I see students at all stages of growth simultaneously. It is not unusual for my day to begin with an undeclared freshman and end with seniors ready to tear into the world. One thing I’m noticing across the spectrum is a disconnect between desired occupation and the requisite skills needed to join the occupation.

Most recently I’ve seen students interested in prestigious companies, agencies, or titles, but with little desire to learn the skills necessary to reach those positions. For example, one may want to work for the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund, and yet, not want to travel abroad, not want to experience a culture that does not speak English, and yet wants to train workers who may go abroad. Another example, is a student who wishes to go to law school but hates writing. In fact these students typically emphatically dislike any course that includes writing. In discussing options with these students it can be challenging to steer them toward their interests and aptitudes while not appearing to crush the dream they’ve had since they were seven. However, we must challenge these ideas if we are to be of service to our students.

The disconnect between skill and desire is coming from multiple aspects of a student’s life. Some students are pressured by parents to get a “good job.” Other students are listening to the reports that say if they do not major in science, engineering or mathematics (STEM) then they are doomed. Other students are looking at their student loan balance reports and are trying to head for the sure bet come hell or lack of interest in a field. Inevitably these students fail miserably in their courses or eventually in their ability to get a job because they cannot articulate a true purpose for why they are interested in their subject of study. These students are outperformed by those who actually want they thing, whatever it is, that they are going for.

It is debatable whether the United States really needs more STEM graduates. It is certainly debatable that humanities and social science degrees do not pay off. The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Handbook shows art students doing fairly well: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/arts-and-design/home.htm. These students are not wealthy, but they aren’t impoverished either. What I see in my work is that regardless of the degree, if the holder is not enthused about the work then the job hunt is merciless as they are beat out by passionate and skilled individuals. Toning down the rhetoric that one must be in one field to do well would go a long way to ensuring that students choose majors and careers that are a good fit.

Year in Review

Our First Scholars

It’s been a super busy year for First Generation University. After so many of you generously gave to our scholarship efforts this year we raised the most money in the four year history of fundraising. Those funds went to a wonderful student from Connecticut, and really made a difference in her being able to stay in school! Thank you again.

This year also marked the beginning of our first program. It’s been a dream to bring the academy to the community, and a partnership with the anti-poverty organization Martha’s Table made that dream come true. I met the director of the teen program, Timothy Jones at the Words, Beats, and Life annual Teach-In where he gave a presentation on hip-hop education. Timothy is a brilliant educator I’d been conversing with online, and when we realized our missions aligned a partnership was born.

In the fall I started the College Pro program on Thursdays. The first half of the academic year we worked with two seniors applying to college. Choosing which colleges to apply to, and working out fee waivers, letters of recommendation and the FAFSA were some of our biggest challenges. In the spring we focused on preparing for the first year in college and dealt with everything from study habits to dating and values.

We’re extremely proud of our two students Jamika Acevedo and Tariq Broadnax. Jamika is headed to Temple University to study biochemistry. Even more impressive is the fact that she earned over 30 thousand dollars in scholarships! Jamika’s advice is to apply for every and any scholarship you qualify for because you never know what may happen. Tariq is headed to the University of Oklahoma to study engineering. Tariq attends Benjamin Banneker Academic High School and decided to apply to the special program Banneker has with OU. Not only does OU provide an opportunity to study engineering, but is a chance for Tariq to get out and experience living in a different part of the country, which he’s very excited about.

We look forward to continuing our work this year, and hope you’ll continue to support what we do.



Minority Student at Predominantly White Institution

Being a minority student at a predominantly white institution is a situation that affects several students whether they are Black, Asian American, etc. A number of factors contribute to the composition of racial diversity on campus such as socioeconomic status, parental education level and gender. Even though most of these issues underlie the means in which the campus environment is constructed, they are farfetched to be completely controlled all at once. What can administrators do to promote racial equality or how can students “find themselves” even if they are a minority on campus? These are the questions we face every year and is an important topic that should be covered across the nation.

For many first generation students, race and cultural diversity at the university level can be an important factor. For many others it might have been an afterthought but is now a present issue once they spend more time developing during their undergraduate career. For me, it is an issue that has been more prominent in recent years as I have worked on research and explored other campus environments. Being a first generation Latino male student has placed me in a unique position in that I can take away different experiences in comparison to the largest population on the UT Austin campus: Whites.

As I am sure that other minority students can attest to, especially during their first year as undergraduates, there are instances in which we can become stereotyped or channeled into the “token” role. I remember during an outing with some of my roommate’s friends I was the only minority in the group and while driving a song in Spanish came up on the radio to which they all immediately asked me what certain words meant. This may seem a small gesture but to me it signified that they assumed the fact that because I am Mexican American I must know Spanish. Another instance was more recently in working on a group activity in class. We were discussing events from our past and when I mentioned I had frequently visited Mexico, the White male group member asked if I had ever “ridden any chivas (goats) or round up any animals.” Even though these experiences seem small, other students may have experienced more blatant accounts of racism and prejudice.

For the most part I believe minority students have not been rejected or ostracized from the mainstream population on campus. Reiterating the question of how students can find their place in a historically white university, there have been initiatives and student centers that they have access to in which they can relate to other students belonging to their culture. Along with multicultural centers, labs, fraternities and sororities minority students have the potential to find the group they feel most comfortable with and can reduce any anxiety or social problems dealt with belonging to a small population on campus.

Choosing the Right College

This post will be dedicated for those students currently deciding which college to attend. It is your senior year and you may be going over your options as to which college to attend. When deciding which university to attend always remember that “Knowing all your choices is the right choice.” There may be some members in your family persuading you to attend their alma mater or you may know a high school counselor attempting to convince you to stay in your hometown’s college. Whichever way you may be deciding there are several factors that you should take into consideration. For a first generation student the opportunity to attend college is a great start towards a promising future, thus making the right choice is a huge benefit.

Recently the White House released a college scorecard that is available for students to use in order to help them prioritize the needs they seek from an institution of higher education. The scorecard allows for students to search through a variety of colleges across the country and allows for comparisons in terms of cost, graduation rates and employment opportunities for graduates. For a first generation student this new tool serves as a great contributor towards making the decision of what college to attend. Since a first generation student does not have parents who have completed college, this decision process can make for a stressful time. However, by exploring all your options you will have a better understanding of what to look for before making your final decision.

Personally, I can remember my college search process was a completely new experience for me and my family but still one that I was very much excited about. There were a mix of emotions (excitement, fear, joy) surrounding my senior year and leading up to graduation. During this time I would look at how much it would cost to attend my first university of choice, how far the distance was between my hometown and the schools I was choosing between and also how much financial aid each school was offering me. As a first generation student I did not have the resource in my parents to show me how to fill out a FAFSA, ask about dorm-life or how to sign up for college courses. Even though many of us venture out on these steps on our own, these events serve as building blocks in creating our independent self outside of our home.

Overall, the decision making process is one that you should not feel scared or hesitant to partake in while you are still in school. Even though it may be intimidating at times to make such a life defining choice, it is all part of making the transition to the next step in your college career. Either way you would be well served to take into consideration these points and complete as much research on the college you wish to attend before you actually set foot on campus as a student.

Mike Gutierrez is a first generation undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently in the process of applying to graduate school.

Getting Entrepreneurial with Your Major

A student came in this week interested in one of the great, though struggling industries – magazine publishing. This student is quite bright and curious, but I had to caution that the publishing industry is struggling and jobs are scarce in the field. While choosing the right major is important, the student is interested in journalism, I suggested that what is more important is obtaining the right skills and standing out. The student may be able to do that through the journalism major, but that isn’t the only option.

This particular student is interested in fashion magazines. Since Sex and the City many young women dream of heading to NYC to write thrilling articles about fabric, accessories, and trends. That dream is doable, but no major alone is going to produce that result. To even land the internship that leads to that kind of job this student will need experience. She’s landed an internship for the summer, but I also stridently urged her to make a name for herself. With all of the resources on campus for funding, and the world wide web, a fashionista without clips or a web presence is doomed.

Our campus newspaper doesn’t have a fashion writer. I suggested she pitch herself. Maybe she should start a blog, or a podcast. Whatever the method one chooses for distinguishing herself she should know that employers are indeed looking for go-getters. Employers haven’t had training programs for new employees since the 1980s, and especially not in competitive fields. They want people to be ready to go on day one. This reality is not always fair because job seekers then must shoulder huge costs trying to get their foot in the door, but knowing that the market is as it is helps one to plan accordingly.

In choosing a major, and job seeking, the world is almost like seeking out a romantic partner.

  • Employers want someone interesting and different, and not just another person like the one they already have or the one they just fired. BE YOURSELF.
  • Just like a particular outfit can get you noticed on the quad, so can the great internships or experience get you noticed in a pile of resumes. If you created a job for yourself then even better! You’ve already shown leadership. Continue to amass experiences that fit your interests and the type of work you want to do.
  • There is no set formula for snagging the job. An employer likes what they like and there is no guaranteed combination of major or experience that does the trick.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Grad School for the First Generation Student

The process of applying to graduate school is a long one and varies for every student. Even though numerous graduate programs may carry different criteria they all ask similar responsibilities of the applicants. For example a student applying for law school will need to take the LSAT exam whereas a student applying for graduate school in education will need to take the GRE. A first generation student should not be deterred to apply for these programs due to the many fees associated with them. These fees may include, but are not limited to: application fees, transcript fees, travel fees and exam fees. For the most part, many entrance exams offer reduction fees and several graduate schools offer application fee waivers for students who show substantial financial need.

Another step to the graduate school application process is the use of letters of recommendation. No matter what school year you currently are know that every professor, teaching assistant or research coordinator is a resource that can be a key tool for you in the future. For example a professor that you create a strong bond with your freshman year can come as a great asset during your applications senior year. Never take for granted the use of your professor’s office hours and the ability to aid in research or assist with their projects. Creating and sustaining relationships during your undergraduate career is a vital part of the college experience. These connections will not only benefit you in the future but will allow you to spread your brand as you gain further education.

There is also a more personalized unit when it comes to graduate school applications in the form of a statement of purpose. This essay is a unique form for a student to tell their story to a program and why they should be selected. This letter will also highlight their many achievements and supplement facts to their resume. The statement of purpose is a great way for first generation students to distinguish themselves from other applicants and illustrate their passion for the program they are choosing.

First generation students most often do not have the resources other students with family members with college and graduate school experience may possess. Therefore, this student may not find a mentor within their family that they can confide in when it comes to how to succeed after graduation. Campus resources are great advantages for students who are pursuing further education after college. Many universities offer career and learning centers with professionals who are trained and educated on the successful transition from college to graduate school and the workforce.

These steps may seem insurmountable but with time and an organized strategy plan any student can complete the task. Knowing what your passion is and what drives you towards a career is a critical step when deciding to attend graduate school. Find this passion as an undergraduate and you will be successful in your endeavors after college.

Good luck!

More questions about graduate school? Leave them in the comments below!

Mike Gutierrez is a first generation undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently in the process of applying to graduate school.