College Bound Tip #7: Advice for Families of 1st Generation College Students

Austin Buchan, Executive Director, College Forward

Applying to college can seem like a time-consuming and daunting endeavor, especially for families going through the process for the first time. Thankfully, you’re not alone. In our work with first-generation college students and their families at College Forward, we have navigated some tricky situations and learned some valuable lessons along the way.

Here are just a few things we’ve learned on how families can make the application process smoother for themselves and their students:

  1. Work to understand financial aid and scholarships.
    There are several financial aid programs available for students, but not all of these are created equally. Research the financial aid packages your students receive and know what you are accepting before you commit. As a parent, pay particular attention to Parent PLUS loans.  Although they offer favorable terms, PLUS loans require parents to start repayments while their students are enrolled.
  2. Ask lots of questions!
    Advocate for yourself and your student. Get to know your student’s college/career counselors and do not be afraid to call your student’s financial aid office, even if you do not speak English. There is always someone on staff who can help.
  3. Don’t be afraid of student loans.
    The average college student in America takes out over $25,000 in loans throughout their college career. While debt is always a serious commitment, it should not prevent families from using loans to invest in their student’s education. Think of educational loans as investments–students who graduate with degrees have access to increased opportunities, better-paying jobs, and earn more over the course of their lifetimes. Generally speaking the fewer loans the better, but don’t rule them out as a way to support your student’s education.
  4. Know you’re not alone.
    There are several programs, resources, and organizations aimed specifically at working with and coaching first-generation college students and their families. Many college or university campuses also have specific programs or offices dedicated to supporting first-generation college students.
  5. Support your student.
    Sending your child to college is a big deal. You’re going to miss them and there’s no way around that, but be careful not to let your own worries overshadow what your child is going through. A college degree is a big deal too, and a goal and accomplishment to celebrate. Support your student by being curious about the application process, asking questions about what schools he/she is applying to and listening to his/her own wishes and worries.


About Austin Buchan

Austin joined College Forward in April 2010 after serving as Program Manager and Community Organizer for the Solentiname Solidarity Alliance, a non-profit organization in rural Nicaragua. While in Nicaragua, Austin helped develop and implement a college preparation and persistence program for highly motivated, low income students. Apart from his non-profit work, Austin has experience in managing and organizing national political campaigns in Boston, MA and Boulder, CO. Austin served as College Persistence Program Manager from 2010-2011, served on College Forward’s special initiatives team. Beginning in 2013, Austin served as Chief of Staff, driving strategic initiatives by monitoring progress towards goals and benchmarks, analyzing data, and sustaining the momentum needed to drive College Forward’s initiatives. Austin assumed the position of Executive Director for College Forward in July of 2015.

College Forward Mission:

College Forward coaches underserved, motivated students to achieve the benefits of higher education and a college degree.

College Forward

College Bound Tip #6: Working with Future First Generation College Students

Sonya Ramirez, Program Director, Center for College Readiness

Sonya Ramirez, Program Director, Center for College Readiness

While greater numbers of students are registering for college, many students are not persisting through to graduation. As a program director in the Center for College Readiness at Rice University, I work not only to provide college readiness workshops to educators, but I also serve as an advisor to Rice University’s – Generation College, a student organization dedicated to supporting first gen students at Rice. Every other week, we meet to discuss the challenges they are facing as they navigate their post-secondary careers. Through these discussions, revelations have emerged that may help educators who are preparing aspiring first gens for their future college careers. Below, I will discuss just a couple of the most prevalent themes I have encountered with my own students.

They may not know they are first gens

                Similar to the status discovery many undocumented students uncover, some future first generation college students do not find out they will be the first in their families to attend college until they are filling out their college applications. Discussions about education and their college futures may not have been brought up at home before. Even in situations where students are aware that their parents did not attend college, they do not necessarily understand what that means and the term ‘first generation college student’ may still be a foreign concept. I had one student explain that when she first heard the term, she instantly identified with it and some of her experiences finally made sense and she didn’t “feel so alone in that.”

 They feel unprepared for the future

First gens often struggle to identify career opportunities. Many are coached by family members who are only familiar with a handful of degreed careers: doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc. In addition to a limited knowledge base, often, first gen students will initially base their career choice on potential income levels, instead of on their interests and aptitudes. This can lead to an identity crisis in the latter part of their sophomore year as they realize all the options available and seek to break from the career choice they had previously proclaimed to their families (whose future resources can seemingly hinge on the student’s success). I had one student voice this saying, “Everybody is looking up to you and if you don’t make it, the world will end.”

They need support

Current and aspiring first generation college students need to be prepared for the non-cognitive challenges, in addition to the academic trials they may encounter, so that they are prepared with the coping mechanisms and strategies necessary to overcome the hurdles in their path. Counselors and other college advocates should prepare students for not only the academic rigor of college, but also for the socio-emotional toll a new college culture can steal from a student’s self-confidence. It may make a difference in shoring up the student’s ability to persist through those first critical months when first year freshmen are adjusting to the new lifestyle of a college student.

About Sonya Ramirez

Ms. Ramirez is responsible for the design and implementation of innovative educator professional development and student enrichment programs, as well as online courses and resources. She has also been responsible for the direction and coordination of CCR’s college readiness programming and managed the implementation of our College Readiness Initiative grant in collaboration with the AVID Center and 13 local school districts. Her efforts also include directing Generation College, a student organization for first generation college students at Rice University, as well as serving as an adjunct faculty member at Lone Star College teaching the 1st Year Experience course, designed to support first-year college students, including non-traditional and first generation college students, as they begin their college careers. As a former first generation college student, she has achieved a B.A. in communications from Texas A&M University and an M.A. in communications from the University of Houston. Ms. Ramirez previously worked as a high school teacher in the Houston Independent School District and as a student recruiter at Houston Community College.

College Bound Tip # 5: Help Students Identify Ways To Maximize Their Chances of Admission


Michael Aldape, Program Coordinator for Early College Outreach, UT Rio Grande Valley

One of the most important life decisions a student will make is where to go to college. Today, exposure to higher education opportunities begins at a very young age. How exciting! Today’s high school senior has access to simplified admissions application processes, campus recruiter visits, application drives, and a plethora of other campus resources designed to streamline the college-going process.


In spite of all this preparedness, however, submitting a college application can still be a scary and overwhelming experience for some students. Consider that students have spent three or more years leading up to senior year in high school busily preparing for college, hearing from the adults in their lives that they need to be ahead of the game in submitting college applications. They know where they want to go, but how can they be sure that they are submitting the best possible application to maximize their chances of being admitted?


As a former Enrollment Specialist at The University of Texas at Brownsville (now The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley), recruiting students for the university’s freshman class was priority. It is hard to measure the number of times my colleagues and I heard, “Are my grades sufficient? Have I completed enough community services hours? Do I have a good chance of enrolling at your university? What else can I do to increase my chances?”


The best response to those questions is that outside of automatic admission standards, there is no magic formula for college admission. While that might be shocking to consider, in some ways, it does alleviate the stress caused by fear of not “making the grade” so-to-speak. Admissions officers are concerned more with who you are as an individual and a student rather than your test scores and résumé.


If the scenario above sounds all too familiar, fear not! The follow-up to those candid conversations is always a helpful list of tips that students can use to make their applications standout among university admissions officers.


First, ask yourself why you want to attend this institution.

This might seem simple, but it is something students often take for granted and forget to ask themselves. Everyone has a dream school. What makes a particular institution standout more to you than any other? Is there a particular program or degree you are interested in pursuing at this school? Have you heard about a faculty member who is conducting research in a field in which you are passionate? Have you visited the campus? Can you see yourself successfully completing your course of study while there? Why do you think this institution will be a good “fit” for you?


Answering these questions within yourself first will make the task of completing an admissions application much simpler because you will be able to demonstrate for the admissions officer that you see yourself as a successful student at their institution. On a side note, consider contacting the Alumni Relations offices at the schools you are interested in to find out if they have an active alumni chapter in your area. Alumni can often be the best people to speak with about maximizing your admissions appeal.


Second, focus on letting the real you shine through your application.

Every student is unique and possesses qualities that make them special and set them apart from their peers. This is what admissions officers want to see! Who are you? What skills, knowledge, abilities and passion can you bring to the institution if offered admission? Tell your story. While SAT, ACT, and other standardized college readiness scores factor into the equation, they are not what defines you as a student. The moment you try to create the “perfect” application by fudging who you are is the moment the admissions officer begins to think that you are just like every other student. Forget about the notion that fitting in and not going against the grain is the expectation—embrace yourself for the student you are and admissions officers will do the same.


Third, when preparing college applications, be sure that you understand the expectations.

In other words, answer the question(s) asked! It might seem simple enough, but when we are excited and nervous, we sometimes tend to ramble in our writing. Students focus on writing the perfect essay for their college applications that they sometimes forget to answer the question originally asked. Alternatively, they sometimes forget that the application materials prepared for one school may not be the same at another. Rather than trying to find a way to have your answer meet what you believe is a “perfect formula” for college applications, focus on the task and use your intuition when completing your applications.


Confidence is key. Trust and allow yourself to shine through your applications. The best version of yourself to highlight in a college application is the real you. Time spent in college truly has the potential to be some of the best years of your life. The student who walks across the commencement stage after earning a higher education credential will not be the same student who, only a few short years prior, had worried about how to develop the best admissions application. See yourself as the extraordinary individual you are while also looking forward to the confident, successful graduate you will soon become.


About Michael Aldape

Michael’s passion is seeing students enter higher education and fulfil their dreams of earning a degree. In his current position as
at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), Michael is involved in several specialized programs geared towards preparing Early College High School students for the rigor of higher education.

Prior to accepting this current role, Michael served as an Enrollment Specialist for The University of Texas at Brownsville (now UTRGV), assisting high school students throughout the Rio Grande Valley as they navigated the university admissions, financial aid, advisement, and registration processes. Michael and his colleagues like to say that they have seen students from recruitment all the way to commencement.

Additionally, Michael coordinates the Greater Texas Foundation (GTF) Scholars Program at UTRGV. This partnership between the Greater Texas Foundation and UTRGV provides small cohorts of Texas Early College High School graduates with a support network focused on academic and personal excellence, and promotes positive socioemotional growth throughout the students’ transition into higher education. Seeing these students succeed academically and develop into confident and productive individuals has truly been a highlight of Michael’s young career.

As a first generation student, Michael credits his personal and academic success to the love and support he continues to receive from family and friends. Michael holds a Master of Arts in History and a Bachelor of Arts in History-Social Studies Education from The University of Texas at Brownsville.


College Bound Tip #4: More Than Just a Number

Tomas Sigala, Director of Education Policy & Programs, The Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce

Tomas Sigala, Director of Education Policy & Programs, The Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce

As a former admissions counselor, I was privileged enough to work for a university that championed the holistic review of all its candidates.  The thorough training we received ranging from admissions to housing to financial aid and admissions packet review was second to none!  Contrary to public perception, this training helped reinforce the belief that students were more than just a number.  Students that would apply to the University would sometimes receive not just one but several reviews due to the rigorous quality control measures of the institution.

Although the Texas Top 10 Percent Law provided one snapshot of the academic achievement potential of a student, the personal achievement review provided us with the richness and depth that a numeric score couldn’t offer.  Every high school I visited, according to students, was very competitive and therefore the automatic admission law seemed unfair.  However, the personal achievement section of the admission review highlights a student’s desire to showcase him/herself as the top candidate regardless of test scores, GPA, type of courses taken and school characteristics.

While most students have no say as to where they attend high school, they do have control over their extracurricular involvement and volunteer activities.  Even if life circumstances prevented them from volunteering or being involved in organizations, the admissions review provides them with the writing component to help describe their life experience.

The successful submission of an admissions application should be incorporated into the daily routine of a student’s high school experience.  As more and more students expect to enroll in college, high schools should draw on available information to align itself better with post-secondary success.

About Tomas Sigala:

Mr. Tomas Sigala is the Director of Policy and Programs for Education and Workforce Development for The Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce. Tomas is a devoted higher education advocate and is deeply committed to helping others achieve the positive opportunities of a college degree.  Prior to his new role within the Chamber, he worked for over 7 years for Socorro, El Paso and Hutto Independent School Districts.  Importantly, his role as College Career Readiness Facilitator helped expose him to the implementation of House Bill 5 where his programs helped garner a best practice by Moak, Casey & Associates.

Tomas currently is a doctoral candidate for the University of Texas at El Paso (Educational Leadership and Administration- Ed.D Program) where his research is focused on the realities of HB 5 among border communities.  He is a Washington D.C.-Bill Archer Fellow and was just recently honored as a Barbara Jackson Scholar.



The Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce-Education and Workforce Development Division, helps lead partnership development efforts between business and education leaders and advocates for meaningful policy change in order to enhance education and workforce development outcomes in El Paso.  The Chambers educational priorities include: FAFSA Nights, Adventure For Your Future and Dual Credit initiatives.


Writing Beyond the Bubble: Crafting the Personal Essay

By Nellie Ugarte


Nellie Ugarte

Nellie Ugarte, College Readiness Consultant, Region 19 Education Service Center

The most anticipated time for students is undoubtedly that senior year.  The year begins with simmering excitement, a smidge of nostalgia, with a final realization that the curtain is falling on their high school days.  Soon the discussion of colleges and scholarships seep into every conversation initiating the inevitable call for help on writing the personal essay.

So why is writing that personal essay problematic for students?  I found that when I assigned the personal essay for a grade, I was treated to a warmed over version of what the student thought I wanted to read. For all purposes the writing was adequately structured as they stayed within the bubble they created.  Writing for many students has simply been an act of obedience producing essays for a grade.  Afraid of being wrong, seniors will write carefully, relying on every writing rule they learned.  Unfortunately, these prefabricated structures lead to formulaic writing lacking authentic voice.  The trick is to urge the students to leap beyond the bubble and write with honesty.

How do we press our students to trust their own voice while guiding them to turn their paper into a canvas that depicts their passion, their uniqueness, their heart all in the spirit of intellectual inquiry? I allowed the first five minutes of class for uninterrupted writing.  The topics relied heavily on student reflections on the world, texts and themselves.  Conferencing with students is an absolute must.  Students need the opportunity to talk through their writing. Allowing time for sharing their essays with their peers permits an alternate audience other than the teacher.  I always remind my students that a well crafted essay challenges, inspires or rattles people’s cages.  For that to occur, they should not be afraid to take the leap.

About Nellie Ugarte

Nellie Ugarte is a College Readiness Consultant at Region 19 Education Service Center.  She was part of the inaugural team that opened Mission Early College High School in El Paso.  After spending 23 years as a classroom teacher, she has spent the last four years providing professional development for teachers across all disciplines and grade levels.  In addition to consulting Nellie Ugarte is adjunct faculty at El Paso Community College where she teaches Research Writing/Literary Analysis.  She is a fellow of the West Texas Writing Project and is a firm believer in empowering teachers through building professional communities and networking

Are you overwhelmed by the college admission process and unsure how to set yourself apart?

By Casey Gros, Program Coordinator, Texas A&M University

Casey-Gros Image

Casey Gros, Program Coordinator, Texas A&M University

Applying to college can seem overwhelming for many students and their families. How can one application sum up who you are and of what you are capable? To keep your stress level down and help you complete a college application that best reflects you, use a checklist. A list of items including deadlines will help you stay organized and will remind you to keep up with all the requirements for a complete application.

Some items to include are a deadline to submit a rough draft of your essays to a trusted reviewer, application deadline, scholarship application deadline, high school transcript deadline, and submitting your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) at Mark the deadlines for each college to which you are applying as they may vary by institution. Some colleges will offer their own checklist, while others will not, but you can find helpful information from your high school or college admissions counselor or a quick Google search.

When preparing your application, make sure it highlights what is unique about you. If you are finding this step difficult, sometimes it helps to talk to your best friends, favorite teachers, or mentors in the community to zero-in on your own unique persona. Your experiences and challenges have made you who you are, so don’t be afraid to share a personal struggle. Make sure your essay reflects your story. Sometimes that means scrapping the first draft, but if you persevere your revised essay can set you apart. Happy applying!

About Casey Gros

Casey Gros is a program coordinator for LAUNCH (Learning communities, Academic excellence, Undergraduate research, National fellowships, Capstones, and Honors) with the Century Scholars Learning Community. She graduated from Texas A&M University 2009 with a BS in University Studies and is currently pursuing a MS in Higher Education Administration. She has worked full-time for Texas A&M University for over 6 years.


College Bound Tip #1: Participate in College-Focused, State-Wide Events

One of the goals of Generation Texas is to promote a college going culture and help high school students, especially first-generation students, navigate their way to and through higher education.

Natalie Coffey, Director of Recruitment and Retention for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board

Natalie Coffey, Director of Recruitment and Retention for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board

When GenTX students graduate from higher education, they will contribute to the 60×30 Goal and to the Completion Goal. The Generation Texas initiative will continue through the new plan, and remain a portal for college-going information, advice, and resources.  GenTX has several key initiatives planned for 2015 – 2016.  The events include GenTX College Application Week, GenTX FAFSA Workshops, and GenTX Decision Day.


GenTX College Application Week (November 16-21, 2015)

The American College Application Campaign (ACAC) initiative began in 2005, in a single GEAR UP North Carolina high school in Chatham County.  Since 2008, the number of states implementing a College Application program has been growing. In 2014, ACAC took place in over 4,000 schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.


During the GenTX Application Campaign, students at participating high schools will be assisted as they complete college applications during the school day. Our goal for GenTX Week is that each participating student submit at least one college application to any of 148 public and independent institutions of higher education in Texas, or any institution of higher education they choose. Texas students will be prepared in advance to complete the college application process, and they will be able to follow-through to complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).


The Application Campaign has a few basic tenants.

  • Focused on first-generation students who might not have considered applying. There is no one at home to nudge or assist them.
  • It is scheduled for November so that students will still be considered for state or institutional-level scholarships or financial assistance. Waiting until the spring is simply too late.
  • It takes place during the school day. This are the students who are least likely to have the transportation flexibility or parental support to return after school.
  • It requires collaboration between K-12 and post-secondary education. These are the organizations that will feel an impact on their processes.  School counselors will need to assist more students in their college matching, application, and transcript requests.  Admissions offices will be concerned about ghost-applications that they need to process.  The good news is that we have evidence from early studies in North Carolina that between 72-79% of who submitted an application during College Application Week matriculated to a post-secondary institution the following fall semester.
  • Utilizes existing networks. Texas utilizes P-16 Councils, Work-Study Mentorship Grantees, Texas College Access Network, and other college attainment groups as our statewide GenTX Steering Committee team to ensure the success of the effort.
  • There is not a state in the union that is not working on college access. This conversation has engaged governors, legislatures, the business community, k-12 and higher education.  Schools have modified curriculum and space.  This activity supports those efforts.
  • It is a low cost/no cost event. School personnel are essential to the efforts success but there are many individuals who will lend helping hands.  Ideas about this will be covered a little later in the presentation.
  • We do not believe it is necessary or appropriate to make this Free College Application Week. Through ACT, College Board, and NACAC, fee waivers are available to students who qualify.  You are more likely to encourage unwanted ghost applications if everyone can apply for free.  The goal is to support students in finding a good match for their college experience and assisting them apply to at least one school.  Nationally and on average, students who apply during the ACAC event submit 1.6 applications.


The goals of the Application Campaign are straightforward:

  • Share information and build awareness
  • Provide individualized advising
  • Assist with application completion
  • Engage parents and community
  • Make decisions and plan ahead


A total of 3,446 students completed 8731 applications at the 91 participating high schools were completed during GenTX College Application Week 2014.


Generation Texas (GenTX) FAFSA Workshops (February 1-28, 2016)

THECB will invite all Texas high school students, parents, current college students, and returning adults to participate in Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) workshops during the month of February. The goal is for every participating student to complete the FAFSA during the month of February so they can take the first step toward applying for financial aid.


THECB will invite financial aid professionals from all of the Texas institutions of higher education to participate by offering their expertise to Texas students and parents.  These events will give parents and students the opportunity to sit down with a trained volunteer and ask any FAFSA related questions.


Generation Texas (GenTX) Decision Day (May 6, 2016)

Generation Texas (GenTX) Decision Day will be held on May 6, 2016 at Texas High Schools to coincide with the National Decision Day, sponsored by the College Advising Corps (CAC). College Signing Day is a celebration of graduating seniors who are entering post-secondary education. Traditionally this fanfare has been reserved for athletes and we are working to celebrate academic achievement with equal excitement.


GenTX Day is a culmination of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s (THECB) student outreach and college awareness activities over the course of a year. This celebration of students who are entering post-secondary education is the result of the hard work of students, teachers, parents, and community members during the GenTX Week College Application Campaign. Seniors are reminded to complete the application process by making a decision about which college to attend and are recognized for their successful applications to post-secondary institutions and programs. Juniors and younger high school students rally in support as they start to think about their goals for post-secondary education. The entire student body is encouraged to participate. The emphasis is on creating a college-going culture in Texas high schools, with a focus on first-generation and low-income students as well as students who may not otherwise apply to college.


All high schools in Texas are invited to participate and the THECB will be focusing on college application and admissions data from the participating high schools. The GenTX College Signing Day encourages community participation and engagement around the post-secondary education of graduating high school seniors. Festivities are often supported by local businesses and regional P-16 councils.


GenTX Day Participation 2015 included the following:

  • 29,913 Admission Applications submitted, including 10,000+ Seniors
  • 25,000 K-12 Students involved in College and Career Readiness Activities
  • 33,159 FaceBook impressions
  • 8,767 GenTX Twitter impressions



About Natalie Coffey


Natalie Coffey is the Director of Recruitment and Retention for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.  Natalie Coffey has devoted 16 years to THECB and an overall total of 31 years to public service including work with the Texas Legislature, U.S. Congress, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  Her work has focused on improving access to education for underserved communities.


Twitter: @generationtexas | Facebook: GenerationTX