Want from within

First-generation students persevere



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Senior Tempestt Walker stands at the entrance of the Middle Way House, where she has been volunteering since February. Sarah Boyum

Bloomington’s Middle Way House volunteers like Tempestt Walker aren’t allowed beyond the large set of double doors marked, “secured entrance only.”

This sign is on the doors at the end of a long orange hallway – a hallway that secures the women and children who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Tempestt has never met any of the women, even though she has volunteered at the house since February 2013. She simply types their names into Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and files their court documents.

“We call them survivors,” she says.

Tempestt is a sort of survivor herself. A senior first-generation college student, she plans to graduate in May with a degree in public health. Tempestt, along with nearly 2,200 other students at IU, is the first in her family to attend college. Neither her mother, father, nor three older siblings successfully completed higher education. She says a lot of students like her struggle to remain in school long enough to graduate. They often succumb to intense academic demands of college-level courses, financial strains, or social pressures.

“At first, we’re scared to ask for help,” Tempestt says. “Everyone automatically assumes that you know what to do. You made it here, so you should have the work ethic and you know how to succeed in college. When actually you don’t. You’re going to struggle.”

IU students across the state face an alarmingly low graduation rate – 57 percent – for those who enrolled in 2006 and received a degree in six years or less, according to graduation rates published by the University Institutional Research and Reporting office. From the same group, only 35 percent of bachelor’s degree-seeking students graduated in four years. Mary Tourner, director of Groups, an advising and financial aid support program for first-generation college students, says it is more difficult to keep students in school due to familial and financial burdens. The graduation rate of first-generation college students is even less than the University-wide statistic. Mary says it is somewhere around 40 percent.

“These students come to campus with the odds against them,” she says.

***

Tempestt is from Indianapolis, a hotbed of recruitment for first-generation college students. She’s soft-spoken yet determined, and she knows what she wants. The 21-year-old blends into the mass of students studying at Herman B Wells Library with her blue checkered scarf and pink North Face jacket. She will graduate, and nothing will stop her, she says. Her mom always stressed the importance of education, yet her older siblings managed to avoid college. Her oldest brother left high school for the streets.

“He felt like he was making enough money on the streets, so he never went back to school,” Tempestt says. Her older brother and sister both received GEDs but haven’t found the time to finish college while working full-time. Tempestt says negative influences like drugs and alcohol never got in the way of her pursuing a college degree.

“I see a lot of people back home that struggle — family and friends. I saw college as an opportunity to not be like that. I’m here (in college) for a purpose – to get exactly where I want to go.”

In fact, Tempestt has never let her academics fall short. Her determination was tested during her sophomore year when her 2003 Pontiac Grand Am broke down – limiting her transportation to and from class. She lived far enough away from campus to where it made it harder to balance classes and work. She thought for a moment about taking a semester off to save up for a new car.

“Taking a semester off meant I may never come back,” she says.

So she stayed.

She stayed so she can graduate and become a lawyer to help victims of sexual assault like the ones at the Middle Way House.

She stayed so she could support her family back home.

***

Juan Cano, codirector of multicultural outreach recruitment at the IU Admissions office, sits at a small desk in the corner of an upstairs room. This is only one of three jobs he uses to support himself while at school. Currently in his fifth year, Juan plans to graduate in May and attend graduate school for education. He says dealing with the social adjustment of college was the least of his problems as a first-generation college student.

“Dealing with the life going on back home was hardest for me,” Juan says, sitting back in his plastic rolling chair. “I had to become the provider for my family.”

Juan’s father started calling, asking for money when his bank account filled with thousands in scholarship funds from the 21st Century Scholars program and Groups. Then, Juan’s uncle, the same uncle who cried over the phone when he found out his nephew was going to college, asked for his help financing treatment for kidney cancer.

“It really burdens you,” Juan says.

But Juan is happy with his role as the provider. He wants to make sure more high school students have the opportunity to be the first in their families to get a college degree. He smiles as he talks about giving his SAT prep books to his younger brother, a junior in high school.

Giving high school students access to a higher education hasn’t been the problem for IU. In Indianapolis, the majority of Ben Davis High School’s student body is composed of first-generation students. IU offer thousands of dollars in financial aid specifically for first-generation students. Yet, less than half of the first-generation class of 2014 will receive diplomas come May.

Martin McCrory, vice provost for educational inclusion and diversity, has worked at the University for almost two decades, focusing the majority of his effort on improving the environment for first-generation college students. A first-generation student himself, he knows first-hand the obstacles they face.

“They never unpack their suitcases because they’re always traveling back and forth from home on the weekends,” Martin says. “This isn’t home for them. This is a foreign land.”

The “suitcase kids,” as Martin calls them, are alienated on campus. He and his staff at the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs are teaming up with leaders and offices around IU to help make students feel more at home, and more likely to stay and graduate. Martin leads regular focus groups that work to break the barrier between the administration and student body.

“It’s my goal to make you believe that you are somebody – that this is your home and you deserve to be at IU,” Martin says.

He says his job is what keeps him awake at night, thinking about ways to create more opportunities for students that need help.

“I’ll create them,” Martin says. “Or I’ll die trying.”

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