College applications: tough for all, tougher for first generation children and immigrants

Sandra Riano, Staff Writer

For children whose parents did not grow up in the United States, the college application process can be more difficult than usual. The experiences of first generation students whose parents never enrolled in postsecondary education differ largely from their non-first generation counterparts.

Although expectations vary from culture to culture, most first generation students have parents that face many of the same socio-economic challenges that come with emigrating to a new country.

First, the language barrier easily presents the greatest challenge for immigrant parents. Children who are in school are often more capable of picking up a new language, and take on the role of teachers when it comes to their parents’ English proficiency. The second biggest difficulty these families can expect is culture shock. As parents begin the process of integration, their children are left to do the best they can in order to succeed.

This boils down to navigating higher education on their own.

“This is my reality, instead of dwelling on the disadvantages I face, I work harder for my future,” said senior Melody Sagastume. “It’s the only thing I can do.”

Port Washington is easily one of the most diverse schools on Long Island. However, a very small percentage of honors, AP, and research students are minorities.

This segregation sheds light on the correlation between achievement and race. This is not to say that minorities are not high achieving, but before reaching a level where their only priority is success, these students must first break out of the socio-economic disadvantages that accompany immigration.

Senior year is like a great race in the beginning of September to complete the Common App and apply to college. Slow and steady isn’t the name of the game here; being prepared and college-savvy is what will get you to the finish line.

Non-first generation students have the advantage of relying on their parents for advice and support, because the have gone through this process themselves. Economically speaking, the college process also puts a lot of pressure on both first generation and non-first generation students alike, with the rising cost of applications and test scores.

The only difference here is the first generation students  often assume economic responsibility because the college process puts an especially large strain on immigrant parents to provide for their children in ways they did not before.

However, the biggest strain may not be financing their children’s college application, but providing adequate support in other ways. Regardless of generational status, what students need throughout this time in their lives is direction and understanding. What many non-first generation students consider a commodity, first generation students consider a luxury.

“Students face the concept of using money to buy education in forms of tutoring and private counselors,” said senior Henry Lin. “It is very competitive.”

The administration has not gone far enough to help first generation students. The college process begins as early as junior year with standardized tests. For anyone whose first language isn’t English, standardized tests are comparatively harder to excel in. Since college admissions use these tests as indicators for possible admission, some students are inherently disadvantaged.

“People who are bright but not fluent in English do not have the chance to show their real capabilities with these tests,” said senior Anan Ryan.

I can remember the helplessness I felt when I was surrounded by so many peers who were suddenly much more prepared to tackle their futures than I ever was. It comes with the territory; helplessness and confusion are often experienced by first generation students, but there is rarely outreach provided for those who need it the most.

Many of us are left to scramble and figure this process out as completely and quickly as we can. I won’t even mention the socio-economic factors that play into standardize testing; we’ve all heard the pros and cons to that age-old debate.

“People are so afraid of asking for help because we live in a country where we are supposed to be independent,” said Sagastume. “And that kind of pride stops students from reaching their absolute potential.”

After students overcome the hurdle of standardized testing, they face the difficult task of college applications. For students whose parents are not legal citizens, this process is increasingly more stressful.

Imagine filling out the documentation needed for admissions, and worrying that each time your parents’ social security is asked for, they could get deported. Ambiguous statuses can also make financial aid applications almost impossible, a particular difficulty for immigrant families.

Although admissions offices promise to safeguard applicant information, some students navigate this process with unshakeable fear and paranoia. The applications one student takes for granted becomes the root of anxiety and despair students with undocumented parents feel. This mixture of fear and confusion keep students from seeking the help they need to complete college applications. As a community, we need to facilitate a space where these students can feel safe and ask for the help they need.

“Our system is not perfect, but we are trying to work with first generation students and immigrants with the help of the ESL department,” said Director of Guidance department Hank Hardy.

If you can take anything away from this, I hope it is a better understanding. This is not a tug-of-war between immigrant students and non-immigrant students. I have not even described the strife illegal immigrants or foreign exchange students face concerning this process.

I urge you to take a critical look at our school. Perhaps, when you are entering, observe the types of students you find walking into Schreiber. A second time, during one of your classes, observe the types of students you will find seated there. Ask yourselves whether you are truly amid diversity.

If the answer is no, work harder to understand the divisions between yourself and someone of a different origin, and advocate for equality. Work harder to acknowledge that because of race, some of us are just at an advantage or a disadvantage. Most of time, it has nothing to do with academic ability.  If we actively work to bridge the gap, we can give all students the capacity to dream.