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Esther Cepeda: Making college a family matter

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Esther Cepeda
November 13, 2013

CHICAGO -- Want to boost the number of low-income Hispanic students who graduate from high school and go on to college? Then find a way to get their parents on board first.

 I just watched “The Graduates,” PBS’ two-part special in English and Spanish on the many roots of the Latino high school dropout crisis. Of all the issues discussed, the one that seems most intractable is students’ sense of responsibility to their struggling families.

 As viewers follow six students through their final years of high school, the filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz touches on a systemic lack of learning resources for underprivileged students, society’s low expectations for poor Hispanic students, the barriers that kids without legal status face, gang violence and teen pregnancy.

 But it was the story of Chastity Salas—we meet her as a junior at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the South Bronx—that illustrates a nearly universal barrier to low-income, first-generation college students: leaving an impoverished family behind in order to better yourself.

 Chastity lived in a homeless shelter with her mother and three younger brothers. For her, school was a sanctuary. Teachers saw that she was a bright student and connected her to a program run by the New York Children’s Aid Society.

 “There was a time when she was seriously thinking about not going to college at all, turning 18, putting all the bills in her name and taking care of them—like really shouldering the entire responsibility of supporting her family,” said Emily Task, the Student Success Center coordinator at the Children’s Aid Society who was interviewed for the documentary. “She really said to me directly, ‘College is not going to support my family. It’s selfish and stupid and really not worth even thinking about.’”

 In my own experience as a teacher and an active member of a community with a large population of Hispanic students living in poverty, I can’t overstate how often I hear this from academically strong low-income students.

 “What will happen to my family if I leave for college?” is a constant concern, especially those students from large, close-knit families where several generations live together under the same roofs. Often it’s the curse of the eldest sibling who has taken on a caregiving role in the family.

 “Junior year, everyone’s talking about college and things like that, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to hear it because I have to focus on other stuff—my family is my priority, my family is everything,’” said Chastity, recalling how she felt before she got one-on-one help to navigate the college selection and application process.

 Chastity’s successful admission into college was inspirational, but how I wish the filmmakers would have delved more into how Chastity’s mother—who herself had dropped out of high school in her junior year—and brothers eventually played into her decision to invest in herself.

 Underscoring this much-needed attention to a family’s influence on underprivileged students were the film’s interspersed success stories. Claudio Sanchez, an NPR education correspondent, movingly explained his desire to start working after high school to support his struggling family. However, he knew his mother wouldn’t have allowed it. So Sanchez went on to college.

 Unfortunately, not all parents feel this way.

 Increasingly, programs that help get underrepresented youth into college require parents to commit to financing a tiny portion of schooling costs before a student is accepted. Without a family’s upfront promise to send their child to college, too high a percentage of students get all the way through a program and then turn down scholarships and opportunities in order to stay home and work.

 Parents, especially those who have completed less than 12 years of schooling, don’t always instinctively understand the long-term benefits of letting their kids pursue a college degree—especially in a time of scary news stories about student loan debt and high recent-grad unemployment.

 Students need to be informed about the many ways they can eventually help their families by getting an education. For instance, Nicholas Salas, one of Chastity’s brothers, noted that she is “very motivating. She’s actually one thing that keeps me in school.”

 And just as important: Teaching parents that such an investment can lift an entire family.

 Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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