Joasquin Estell has always dreamed of getting a college degree, but turning the dream into a reality hasn't been easy.
Estell, the son of a Belizian farmer and a domestic worker, attended college once before but dropped out. Now, at age 32, he is trying again to become the first in his family to earn a degree.
As a student at West Los Angeles College, he has had little trouble mastering the academic side of college life, but he has been frustrated by the nuts and bolts of planning a career, scheduling classes and setting goals and objectives.
Estell's problems are not unique. Making the adjustment to college life is a difficult task for most students, but it is particularly hard for first-generation college students, those whose parents didn't pursue a higher education.
'Learn the Ropes'
"They often don't have anyone to help them learn the ropes," said Leige Henderson, the director of the Program for Academic Support Services (or the PASS+ program) at West Los Angeles College. "They don't have anyone who has been there before, someone to tell them how to manage their time between work and social life. A network of college friends or someone at home who will understand."
Estell hopes to overcome the disadvantages through PASS+, a program designed to help first-generation students. The two-year college has received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to identify and provide services to help students like Estell overcome the hurdles.
"They helped me sharpen my major (in engineering) by coordinating my entire program," Estell said. "It is just the place I have wanted to be. It is like I have been using a shovel to move earth and here comes this crane and moves it in one scoop."
The 40 students taking part in the PASS+ program are given tutoring and academic and personal counseling. Students attend workshops on how to improve study skills and how to handle stress. They are also given career counseling and made aware of other campus services, such as child care.
To be eligible, a student must have parents who never received a four-year degree and must qualify as low-income, which is defined as $16,000 a year for a family of four.
"These are students who are having difficulty fitting into the mainstream," said Henderson, who runs the program out of a bungalow in the student center. "Students need resources in order to become successful. They need counselors, they need friends."
West Los Angeles College is not the only college offering special assistance to first-generation students. East Los Angeles College also received a federal grant, and similar programs are operated at other colleges and universities throughout the country.
Henderson said the first students to join the program had to be recruited. She said she plans to double the enrollment to 80 next year simply through word of mouth about the initial success of the program.
Could Lower Dropout Rate
College officials hope the program will help reduce the dropout rate. West Los Angeles College, like many other community colleges, has had difficulty retaining students.
Recent figures show that 28% of the 8,600 students enrolled at the college dropped out sometime during the first semester of this school year. While the figure is high, it is also about average for the nine community colleges in the Los Angeles Community College District, said Linda Thor, president of West Los Angeles College.
Thor said community colleges attract more first-generation college students than four-year institutions.
"Community colleges are perceived as people colleges," she said. "We tend to serve people who, if it were not for the community college, would not have a vehicle to achieve a higher education. Many of the students come from the kinds of environments where college was not an accepted goal."