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August 25, 2013

CEPEDA: Few miracles for first generations

Twenty-one years ago this month, my parents drove 332 miles to drop me off at a college campus none of us had ever set foot on.

Amazingly — and despite many fears — two strict, traditionally minded immigrant parents packed off their only daughter to a far-away university to become the family’s first college graduate. I can hardly believe the series of miracles that had to occur to get me there.

And miracles are what most first-generation college students require to overcome their nearly impossible barriers to a university education. Or so I learned from one of the most dismal movies I’ve seen, “First Generation,” a 2011 documentary about four high school students who struggle to get into college, shows what happens when those miracles don’t come through.

Adam and Jaye Fenderson, the film’s directors, tell a compelling composite story of how difficult it is for low-income students to even decide to go to college, much less successfully navigate the application and financial aid process.

The beauty of the Fendersons’ casting choices is that the students — an inner-city athlete, a small-town waitress, a Samoan folk dancer, and the daughter of migrant field workers — are about as far from stereotypes as you can get.

These students are much like most other high-schoolers who dream about college. Some are top scholars, while others are middling, at best. They go to work, participate in afterschool clubs, and excel at sports.

Some have warm, loving families and others barely speak to their parents — if they have them in their lives at all. Each experiences the painful dissonance of having loved ones who are at times nominally encouraging about college and then, moments later, guilt-trip them about being left behind at home.

But their biggest fears are about money. And the directors show us, in harsh terms, the reality of how low-income families worry about how to pay for an education. Without family members or friends who have graduated from college available to help, a university is a mystical, far-away place.

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