Faces of the Firsts: 1st-generation college students claim their place in family history
June 15, 2014
Some blame thin wallets and the high cost of tuition as the reasons their family members never graduated from college. Many others had parents born into a life that required military service, immediate jobs or even marriage at a young age.
About 22 million students will be enrolled in college this fall, and a significant chunk will be the first in their families to do so. As early as 2010, a USA Today story reported that roughly 30 percent of incoming freshmen in America are first-generation college students, the vast majority of whom are also under the low-income umbrella.
Decades ago, college was just a choice, maybe a privilege or simply the next educational step. Talk to Routt County students who received their high school diplomas this spring, and they'll tell you there is a perception that college nowadays is a recipe — perhaps the only one — for success in the 21st century.
There's more pressure than ever these days to pursue higher education, but there is also a wealth of support, from the high schools from which they just graduated, from local organizations offering scholarships and from the family members who never attended college but dreamed of their children doing what they couldn't.
More than two dozen Routt County graduates will enroll in the fall as first-generation college students. These are a few of their stories — the faces of the firsts.
At least one side of Joe Dobell's family knows all too well what the "Yampa Valley Curse" feels like.
When John Dobell started making regular skiing visits to Steamboat Springs as a sophomore student at the University of Wyoming, he was hooked.
So hooked, he decided to stick around — not for a season, but for good.
John left school before his junior year at Wyoming, settled into the Yampa Valley and his skis and worked his way up in the construction business, where he now owns Dobell Contracting Company Inc.
John's wife and Joe's mom, Reba, was raised in Nashville, Tennessee, and the whole "college thing" just wasn't something stressed in her household.
His parents might not have gone the degree route to get where they are today, but Joe is etching his own path in the Dobell family tree when he heads to Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, this fall.
"Definitely, the thought of getting a better career after school was my drive," Joe said about attending college as a first-generation student. "I definitely understand that at this point in time, it's necessary. It's very competitive. If you want to have a career that's well-paying and stable, it's almost necessary to get a college degree of some sort."
For a set of parents who never earned college diplomas, the Dobells made sure their children had educational aspirations that extended beyond high school. Joe's sister Kathleen graduated from Dartmouth University last weekend, and his sister Rachel is in the middle of nursing school at Metropolitan State University in Denver.
The college idea was stressed to Joe and his siblings, he said, noting his dad still thinks about his decision to leave the college life.
"He regrets it now," Joe said. "He has told me that he wishes he would have stayed. He kind of realizes now he limited his options a lot. He's been in construction since '73 or so. It's kind of a one-way street."
Joe said the idea of returning to the Yampa Valley isn't unrealistic when college is wrapped up, but the thought of getting out and exploring the Pacific Northwest is perhaps the most intriguing part of his future plans.
Fall term at Western Washington begins Sept. 24.
It's rare to see Steamboat Springs High School graduate Savannah McKendrick without a camera in tow. But it wasn't until she got her first high-end DSLR model for Christmas two years ago that the idea of making a career out of photography started to blossom.
To get there, though, Mc-
Kendrick said she has long felt the pressure to jump from high school to college — not from her parents, but from the generalization of the degree-to-job relationship.
"My parents support me no matter what, but it's always been a very big thing for me to go to college," McKendrick said. "There is so much stress nowadays about going to college. There's this perception that if you don't have a degree, you'll work at McDonald's for the rest of your life."
McKendrick's dad — a native of New Zealand — dropped out before high school was over, pursuing work on a dairy farm instead. McKendrick said her mom, a Utah native, earned her high school diploma, but higher education was not pursued.
So, if her parents aren't pushing a college education on McKendrick, where does her desire to enroll in Colorado Mountain College's photography program in Glenwood Springs come from?
"I just want to get more comprehension and experience from it," McKendrick said about her studies, which start in late August. "I know it's also good publicity to get yourself out there."
The farthest "out there" McKendrick currently hopes to reach is to become a wedding photographer, but the idea of overseas travel photography is an option, as well.
With the work world still a few years out, McKendrick simply has her eyes set on being a college-bound student, and even escaping the town where she's spent the better part of her life.
"I'm excited to get out of this town, as bad as it sounds," she said. "I've lived here since first grade. I basically grew up with my graduating class. It will be good to get out, have my own life and get some good experiences under my belt."
With the cost of higher education spiking year to year and federal financial aid decreasing, the cost of education easily can be the biggest deterrent to making the jump from high school to college.
But when the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 passed, the cost of college was suddenly much more affordable for those students graduating out of the U.S. Armed Services, like Hayden's Arlo Lott.
Lott was honorably discharged after four years of service as a United States Marine, stationed in San Clemente, California.
Life before and after service meant long days as a fencing contractor, tough work that can take a toll on the body over time.
Lott heard about the GI bill upgrade, which boosted the monthly stipend with another post-military perk — full tuition to any public school where a veteran can get accepted.
"As a fencing contractor, your back can only last so long," Lott said. "Somebody made it aware to me, the post-9/11 advantages, and to me it was a no-brainer. My wife just graduated nursing school, so she was doing well to compensate us. It was kind of a perfect storm of good income and the newly passed bill."
Using those advantages, Lott graduated from Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat with his bachelor's in sustainability studies, one of the four-year degrees offered at CMC.
Lott's father grew up as a diesel mechanic, earning a certificate for the industry in Tennessee, but never pursuing a college degree. Lott said his parents were "making it happen and making it work on their own." Two generations ago, Lott says, his grandparents weathered the Great Depression, and college just wasn't financially feasible, making Lott the first in the past 100-plus years in his family lineage to walk the stage at a college graduation.
It all boiled down to having a backup plan should Lott find himself out of work or laid up with an injury, he said — more weapons in the arsenal for the ex-Marine.
"Having the potential to have a degree if the back ever did give out," Lott said. "Having that tool in the tool box."
Steamboat Springs High School's Hunter Anderson has been the observant-learner type, not really the book worm — yet.
She watched. She saw and heard how members of her family always lived off a tight budget, also learning that no one could afford to attend college.
Her dad is one of four boys on that side of the family, all of whom struggled with money. College was simply too expensive.
Instead of resigning to the harsh fate that a moderate income can deal a family, Hunter decided to use it as motivation.
"Watching them raise their kids and handle their own money kind of made me want to help my own family in the future," she said. "And it starts with college, not high school."
She may be the first in her family to go to college, but that doesn't mean her parents didn't push it, Hunter said.
"So much pressure," Hunter said about the prospect of college right after high school. "My dad, every time something comes up, it's like, 'Did you apply for this scholarship? Did you apply for housing or food? Did you do the financial stuff?' It's a constant."
She'll attend Colorado State University in Fort Collins in the fall, where classes begin Aug. 26.
And although she's aware her high school study habits won't fly on a college campus, she's most excited to dive into curriculum she signs up for, not something passed down in grade school.
"I've never been that good at studying," Hunter said. "I'm looking forward to finding my own way of learning. I'm actually studying something I'm interested in instead of the set curriculum of high school.”
Steamboat Springs High School graduate Katie Huselton long has wanted to work with kids as a career.
When the idea of attending college began to surface as a high school junior, she began toying with the idea of what college might look like. She would become the first in her family to make the leap, but it's a step that basically is required in order for her to live out her teaching dreams.
Her mom tried college for a few months but never followed through. Her dad completed vocational training to become an electrician but never earned a college degree.
So Huselton and her mom — a 38-year Steamboat resident — shopped around for schools. Colorado State University was too big, and Fort Lewis College felt too much like high school.
Colorado Mesa University was the perfect fit.
"It's close but also far enough away," Huselton said. "I want to go somewhere new. I don't want my parents to be right on my tail all the time."
And she's going on her own. With no family in Grand Junction and no close friends leaving with her, she'll pursue a career as Ms. Huselton to students — preferably the first-grade variety — independently.
School begins Aug. 18, and Huselton is well aware of the academic challenges that await.
"I'm expecting it to be really fun, meeting new people and everything," she said. "But I'm expecting it to be difficult. I'll have to work a lot harder."
Soroco High School graduate Lexi Jonas knows what financial struggle feels like.
Jonas' mom always has been a waitress, and her father has bounced around in the construction industry. They lived on a tight budget, each barely graduating from high school, Jonas said.
But even though Jonas has bounced around herself, moving to Oak Creek in October from Salt Lake City, she wants to break the trend of settling for a job or work, and she's using college to accomplish that.
"My dad always said that basically, I had to go to college," Jonas said. "I didn't have much of a choice. I'm also the oldest child in our house. I have a desire to set an example. I felt the need to show them what they should do."
A few family members have tried college. Jonas' mom's sister went for a year, got married and didn't finish. Her grandmother attended beauty school, and her grandfather earned his real estate license, but life on a college campus never came to fruition.
In the fall, Jonas will enroll in Colorado Northwestern Community College in Craig's cosmetology program. She's also interested in business and culinary arts. She was accepted into the University of Utah in the fall, but something didn't feel right about returning home, Jonas said.
"I was going to go to Utah," Jonas said. "I went back to Utah for Christmas, and when I opened my letter, I just wasn't happy. I didn't get that sense of joy you should get when you're accepted to a school you want to go to."
CNCC does feel right, though. It's not too far from home, but far enough to stay with a pair of friends in their apartment. She leaves the first week of August.
"I've always had a sense of responsibility," Jonas said. "My parents have always made me feel it. I'm not really worried about it. I'm excited to do things on my own."
Some first-generation college students brush off the idea that they are the inaugural members of their family to attend college.
But for Soroco High School graduate Emilee Tritz, it's her sole motivation.
"No one from my family has been to school, and I honestly did want to be the first one to accomplish that goal," she said about a month after receiving her high school diploma.
Like many, family finances simply weren't there to support college tuition. But the support group for the CNCC-bound student never has wavered.
"I wanted to go because they've always been there to support me," Tritz said about her parents. "It really pushed me to want to do something after high school."
Tritz is already in the middle of opening as many doors as possible. Every other Saturday, she attends acting courses in Denver. She'll be in CNCC's cosmetology program in August.
Tritz's parents don't shy away from sharing some regrets about missing out on the post-high-school experience or the financial constraints they've lived with since.
"They'd tell me, 'We didn't get the opportunity. You see how we live paycheck to paycheck. We don't want you to have a life like that,'" Tritz said.