When Alex Garcia talks about his life, he absently repeats the words, "I can't believe it."
He says it when he talks about his life before--running with a gang, dropping out of school, getting arrested.
He says it again when he reflects on his life now, as a Glendale College student earning straight A's. "Every day," he said, "everything gets better."
Garcia is the first in his family to go to college. As such, he represents a vast group that educators must pull in if the state is to fulfill its historic promise of universal access to college.
First-generation college students are made up disproportionately of minorities and immigrants, and tend to be older and poorer than peers from college-educated families. They are more likely to attend two-year colleges, less likely to get advanced degrees, more likely to get vocational certificates, and more likely to drop out. They are impoverished immigrants, single parents, students who fall into college as if by accident.
In short, they are archetypal community college students--especially in urban Los Angeles, where some colleges' enrollments are 70% or more first-generation.
Such students are the trailing edge of a wave that is thought to have reached its peak when the World War II generation flooded the nation's colleges, forever sweeping away the notion of college for elites. Even now, an estimated 43% of new undergraduates nationwide are first-generation, according to a recent study by MPR Associates for the National Center of Education Statistics. Of these students, the poorest and least prepared tend to gravitate to community colleges.
Their success is arguably a measure of the country's social and economic progress. Reduction of the gulf between rich and poor, assimilation of vast numbers of immigrants and the elimination of racial inequities hinge to some extent on expanding college opportunities to historically excluded groups.
But coming from backgrounds that place them furthest from the reach of college, this new crop of first-generation students faces stiffer requirements and a more unforgiving set of economic stakes.
Colleges Focusing On Such Students
As California colleges and universities strain to increase diversity on their campuses without race-based affirmative action, they are paying more heed to such students, particularly at community colleges, where most minority students enter higher education.
Garcia is in a counseling program for first-generation students that has been expanded to several local community colleges in recent years. In addition, California community colleges may soon begin tracking first-generation status of applicants, with an eye toward ushering them more effectively through school.
The University of California, meanwhile, has agreed to try to boost community college transfers--a means of reaching out to such statistically disadvantaged students, without specifically targeting race.
Poor, Latino, a school dropout and the son of a single mother from Guatemala who didn't finish grade school, Garcia typifies the first-generation student who is making it through college against the odds.
He also makes clear why ushering new groups into higher education involves more than recruiting. It's a matter of finding the A students hidden among C students, UC recruits among high school dropouts, lost kids like Garcia who turn out to be whizzes at math. It's a matter, said Scot Spicer, a Glendale College administrator, "of staying with students and not giving up on them."
Wiry and often wearing a wide bad-boy grin, Garcia grew up in Atwater Village. He dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. His mother, a seamstress, lost her job and needed him to work.
He was a troublemaker and never a good student. A science teacher once pulled him aside to tell him he was smart and urged him to work harder. Garcia shrugged it off.
He drank and brawled with his gang. He shoplifted, violated his probation and spent time in juvenile camp. Asked to describe himself then, Garcia laughs, his hands tracing the course of an imaginary bowling ball. "Gutter ball," he says.
When it came to discipline, Garcia remembers his mother trying to lay down the law: Don't do drugs, she told him. Don't bring home a pregnant girl. As for school, "She didn't encourage me," he said. "But she never told me not to go to school either. We just didn't talk about school."
He did get his GED, and briefly held a job as a shoe salesman in the Glendale Galleria earning $200 a week. "Now I see it wasn't much money," he said. "But then, wow, it was so much money."
When that job ended, manual labor seemed his only option. But, "I didn't want to break my back lifting boxes--I'm just 5-7, a little guy," he said.
So, being short, he went to college.
It was a major turnaround, but not decisive. Rather, Garcia followed a pattern counselors say is typical of many first-generation students: He muddled along, barely passing his classes. To him, a C was good enough, more than good enough.