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Going remote makes it harder for colleges to reach first-generation students

Getting to college was hard enough — then the pandemic upended their support system

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Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images

Their patient was flatlining, so Elizabeth Padilla Ortiz and her colleagues needed to act fast. She began chest compressions, but much of what happened afterward was a blur. “It was just an adrenaline rush,” she says. 

Face-to-face support systems that can level the playing field

The patient was a dummy in a simulation lab at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Padilla Ortiz and her companions were high schoolers, part of a UCSF program called Health Pathways aimed at getting Oakland students from low-income families into careers in health care by providing them with hands-on experience. In Padilla Ortiz’s case, it succeeded.

Two years later, Padilla Ortiz is an incoming sophomore studying nursing at the University of California, Los Angeles. She credits UCSF’s program and others like it with motivating her to serve low-income communities as a nurse practitioner, a career she didn’t know existed until then. Programs like this have been a springboard for first-generation college students like Padilla Ortiz. They offer face-to-face support systems that can level the playing field for students of color and low-income students, and they have been a big part of the push to diversify college campuses.

Now, these programs, and the students they serve, are struggling to adapt as the pandemic upends life both at school and at home. They’re supposed to be able to step in to help students when their families aren’t familiar with the education system. But with everything topsy-turvy, these programs aren’t sure how to navigate the upcoming school year either. There are more roadblocks than ever for students to overcome. And if these students fall through the cracks, universities and the fields in which those students would have entered, like health care, lose out on the talent and diverse perspectives first-generation students have to offer. 

“With all the technology we have in the world, I don’t think it’s a replacement for one-on-one engagement in the academic environment. And I’d be worried about how that shapes the sense of belonging for first-gen students in a lot of ways,” says Sarah Whitley, senior director at the Center for First-generation Student Success. “Fundamentally, we know in higher education that face-to-face matters.”

Elizabeth Padilla Ortiz is an incoming sophomore studying nursing at UCLA
Elizabeth Padilla Ortiz is an incoming sophomore studying nursing at UCLA.
Photo: Elizabeth Padilla Ortiz

In the summers, UCSF hosts a federally funded eight-week program called Upward Bound, for high school students from communities where tech industry-fueled gentrification has contributed to disparities in educational attainment. The program prepares students for college and is typically held on different university campuses in California’s Bay Area. Last year, they even took a trip to New Orleans to visit Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBCUs). And because of UCSF’s focus on health science, the program also brings students to the same learning lab that Padilla Ortiz visited for an immersive, hands-on simulation of patient care. 

This summer, the program was held virtually for the first time. Much of the curriculum is still the same — like how to prepare for the SATs and write strong essays for college applications — but field trips have been replaced with guest speakers who join their meetings remotely to talk about different careers in health care. The Antioch Unified School District provided laptops to students who needed them.

There’s another core piece missing when programs like this go virtual. It’s not the same ticket out the door for students with difficult situations at home. Some of the students they serve are homeless. UCSF is working with social workers and high school counselors to find safe spaces for them to hop online, but it’s not the same. 

“Upward Bound sometimes is that safe haven that they get to go to,” says Don Woodson, director of the Center for Science, Education & Outreach at UCSF. “They’re getting the grades and have worked themselves to the bone educationally because they see that as a way to remove themselves from their home situation, to go to a school or university. And now, they can’t do that.”

The COVID-19 pandemic can make the feeling of “imposter syndrome” worse

Even once students manage to become the first in their families to go to college, staying there sometimes requires some extra support. The COVID-19 pandemic can make the feeling of “imposter syndrome” worse for first-generation students, Whitley says. “It’s the notion that you are not a part of a community, that you are an outsider, and it often manifests in the college environment because in a classroom you’re able to compare yourself to other people and so you make assumptions that no one else there is like you,” says Whitley, who was also a first-generation college student. 

There’s also a digital divide to deal with. First-generation students might also have less access to fast internet connections or to all of the devices students will need as academia reinvents itself online. For nursing students, more of their required clinical hours, which are usually spent with real human beings in the field, are now being held online with simulated patients. 

Padilla Ortiz moved back home to Oakland after UCLA shut down its campus earlier this year and started taking classes from her bedroom. Finding space to work and a good internet connection was a nightmare at times. Her four siblings in the house, including an older brother in college, also needed to be online for classes. “Internet was super slow, there were so many times I got kicked out of my class and I just found it so hard to actually be motivated to even join again because I just kept on getting kicked out,” she says. She also sometimes lends her computer to her younger siblings in elementary and middle school since it works faster than the Chromebooks provided by their schools.

At Occidental College in Los Angeles, teachers and staff — most of whom were also first-generation students — have banded together over the past couple of months to create what they’re calling a “first-gen coalition.” 

“We’re trying to eliminate as many obstacles as possible that our first-gen students might encounter in a virtual world at Occidental,” says Erik Quezada, one of the founders of the coalition. He’s also the director of a program at the college that normally brings undergrads to high schools in nearby low-income neighborhoods to provide tutoring. That was put on pause in March, and he’s still waiting for final word from the Los Angeles Unified School District on how it will be able to move forward during the pandemic. In the meantime, his new coalition is looking into how they can get electronic textbooks to first-generation undergrads free of charge and connect them with the school’s IT department to get them more familiar with the school’s tech resources. 

Students might not come back

While undergraduates who just finished high school might be somewhat more comfortable reaching out for help and making connections online, thanks to growing up in a world with smartphones and social media — “The iPhone and Androids have been in their hands since they were practically born,” Whitley says — the transition might not come as smoothly for the large number of first-generation students who are 30 or older.

For them, responsibilities like work and child care, could increasingly pull them away from extracurricular programs — and from universities — altogether. Whitley says she’s noticing an uptick in first-generation students deciding to take a year off or attend community colleges instead. If life keeps getting in the way, those students might not come back to four-year schools. Even before the pandemic, 54 percent of first-generation students said they dropped out of college because they could no longer afford it. For other students, the rate was 45 percent.

“Everybody has their own unique and invisible experience because you can’t look at someone and say they’re first generation,” says Laura Wagner, who founded FirstGenRN, a UCSF program aimed at providing career development for undergraduates studying nursing. She also trains faculty on how they can be most helpful to first-generation students. It’s been important lately for them to be flexible and extend deadlines, she says, as many of her first-generation students who work have had to pick up extra shifts. Some need to supplement household earnings when family members lose jobs, while others who work in health care saw a bump in workload because of the pandemic.

Laura Wagner during a meeting of UCSF’s FirstGenRN program, which she founded to support nursing students who will become the first in their families to graduate from college.
Laura Wagner during a meeting of UCSF’s FirstGenRN program, which she founded to support nursing students who will become the first in their families to graduate from college.
Photo by Elisabeth Fall

One of Wagner’s students in FirstGenRN, Meghan Canlas, a senior at California State University, East Bay working toward her bachelor’s in nursing, missed the first Zoom meeting for FirstGenRN. The program normally meets in person each month to talk about topics like financial literacy, time management, and self-care. It shifted to Zoom in the spring semester as the pandemic unfolded. “I just wasn’t used to everything being done via Zoom. And so that was kind of hard to adapt,” Canlas says. And in addition to staying on top of her schoolwork and extracurricular activities, she has to navigate how remote learning works for her kids, too.

Canlas is 32, a Marine Corps veteran, and a mom of three balancing her own education with her kids’ needs. “I kind of feel like I have to choose between my child’s education or my education,” she says. “There [aren’t] enough hours in the day.” She’s worried about one of her fall semester classes that will be held over Zoom. The class, Leadership in Nursing, starts at 8AM. Two of her kids also start classes at 8. It’s going to be a learning curve figuring out how to balance it all, she says. In the long run, though, she sees that her own success as a student sets an example for her kids. “The trajectory of my children is different. The expectations are higher,” she says.

“We will lose the progress that we’ve made.”

First-generation students — who made up 56 percent of undergrads in the US during the 2015-2016 school year — are more likely than other students to be female, to be veterans, to be over the age of 30, to have kids or dependents, and to attend school part-time compared to students with at least one parent who graduated from college, according to Whitley’s center. While white students made up a higher share of first-generation students, Black and Latino students were more likely to be first-generation than to have parents with a bachelor’s degree. 

“Certainly my greatest worry about the impact of COVID-19 is that we will lose the progress that we’ve made over the last 25 years in diversifying college. And so far, the numbers don’t look great,” says Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education. Black and Latino students were more likely than white students to change or cancel their plans this year, according to a recent survey of 10,000 people from March to May. 

“It’s going to be a blow to all institutions to suffer those losses,” Mitchell says. “The quality of the educational experience will be impaired. But I think the real worry is the aggregate cost to society of a generation of students for whom higher education may not be part of their life journey.”

“That’s not the way it looks.”

Even though UCSF is a graduate school focused on health science, it sees its efforts to get more high school and undergraduate students into health careers as crucial to the future of their field. To close gaps in health care for communities of color, people with low incomes, and families for whom higher education has been out of reach, people need to be able to walk into a doctor’s office and see someone they can identify with, says Woodson. “Currently in health care, that’s not the way it looks,” he says. 

“I don’t want to be a part of an institution that only provides privileges to people of the upper class,” Padilla Ortiz says. “I want to provide equal resources to everyone and I also feel like it’s my job as a first-generation, low-income student to be aware of these things and to actually address them as a future health care professional.”

The pandemic has thrown more hurdles at Padilla Ortiz, but she says it’s motivated her more to pursue her career in nursing. She’s still looking for ways to get plugged into programs that can help her grow professionally, but it’s been harder lately to find those things on her own. She scours the internet for internships and wishes she got more emails from her school on any opportunities that are out there. “I see [other people] joining these internship programs and I’m just like, ‘Where have they heard about these things? I haven’t seen anything.’”