College Success Tips By A First Generation Student – Part I

StephenieWhen Stephenie’s father passed away during her senior year of high school, she stopped attending classes. The thought of going back for another year seemed insurmountable, so she elected to get her GED.

Coming from a low-income family, she had some relatives who were in and out of jail and some with drug problems. Her parents never completed high school, but they worked hard to provide for the family and she did the same.

After seven years of working dead-end retail jobs and later as a pre-school teacher, she decided to go back to school. She attended Cascadia Community College and eventually transferred to the University of Washington with a major in American Studies. She graduated in 2012 with her Bachelor of Arts degree.

Stephenie currently works in purchasing for a furniture design company and runs their social media as well. She is planning to apply for her Masters in Library & Information Science this winter. Her goal is to get a career in archival research and data compilation and help others, like herself, find freedom through education.

We met up with Stephenie and asked her if she had any advice for GED students who want to attend college.

Why do you think more GED graduates don’t pursue a college degree?

It’s probably a lack of information. I didn’t realize it until years after getting my GED that I could get an Associates (AA) degree and then transfer to a 4-year school. I didn’t have any help from my parents and didn’t realize that I could receive enough financial aid to support myself.

Plus, when you come from a low income family, when you are constantly worried about how you are going to make that month’s bills, you try to work more hours each week rather than think about long term goals.

What made you decide to go to college?

My parents didn’t go to college so they didn’t talk about it or push college. My siblings and I were all really good readers, had good aptitude, and we were well spoken and articulate. But none of us knew where to take it from there.

I worked at a movie theater at a mall and worked a lot of retail jobs before I got a job as a preschool teacher. I really liked the last job but it didn’t pay a lot. Later, I had my first son and it was then that someone told me, “You can get financial aid. I can help you walk through it.”

I think there’s a stigma around having a GED. I was really embarrassed about it. But, now most people don’t even know that I have a GED. I just say I got my BA from the University of Washington, and obviously that sounds better.

When you started going back to school what would you say was your biggest struggle and what did you do to overcome it?

Well, I got divorced while I was in school, which was big, but it wasn’t the biggest one. I was pregnant in between my two sons but ended up losing the baby.

That semester, I had to drop one class because the load was too much. When you don’t complete all of your full time credits, you are put on academic probation for your financial aid and you can lose your financial aid that way.

But you can write a letter of appeal explaining your extenuating circumstances. So I wrote a letter explaining it and the college was amazing. They waived the academic probation and made sure that I had counseling support as well. And by the next quarter, everything was fine.

How did you make being a mom and a full time student work? Did you work while you were in school?

I worked part-time, through a community college as a preschool teacher. When I applied to UW, I did take extra loans but the core of my tuition and books was covered with grants. So, I was able to quit working and be a full-time student, which was amazing because it’s harder when you’re getting your bachelor’s degree.

I made being a student my full time job. My mind was divided, in that, I was already a mom. And I had a second son the summer before I started at UW, after I graduated from Cascadia.

My first quarter at UW, I used to race over to the woman who was watching my son, to nurse him between classes and race back to class. Looking back at it now, I can’t believe I managed that.

I spent a lot of time studying after my kids went to bed at night, because they were young and didn’t understand why my attention needed to be on my studies. Not only that, I’m someone who doesn’t handle sound distractions very well. In order to study, I either used to wait until they were asleep at night or I would find a babysitter and stay at the library. I’d purposely go to the library on the days I didn’t have class, so I could focus. I tried to have at least two days a week with my kids but most of the times I needed to be away from them.

How long did it take you to get your degree? Were you able to transfer most of your credits to the university?

[Including the Associates degree], I took three and a half years because I also attended during summers. There were some remedial math classes that I needed but everything else transferred over (from the community college to the University of Washington) just fine. I think I was a little ahead of schedule which was why I was able to take a lot of courses that I loved rather than only taking the ones I had to.

By my senior year I had gotten everything tough out of the way. So, basically, I got to take classes just because I always wanted to learn about that subject not because it was geared toward my degree.


Continued in Part 2

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