College Is A 4-Year-Long Balancing Act For First-Generation Students | KUOW News and Information

College Is A 4-Year-Long Balancing Act For First-Generation Students

Nov 1, 2016
Originally published on November 1, 2016 3:23 pm

When you're facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who's already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they're letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.

Halley Katz has almost always known what career she wanted to pursue.

"I've wanted to be a writer since I was 4 or 5 years old," she says. "In eighth grade I took a creative writing class that had a unit on creative nonfiction. And that was the moment I decided I wanted to double major in journalism and political science."

But college was never a sure thing. No one in her family had attended a four-year college, and Halley ended up dropping out of high school.

Now, after completing two years at a community college, she is enrolled in her first term at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.

Four years ago, Tyler Lattimore was in a similar position. He always knew he wanted to be a lawyer and that education was the best option for his future.

"My mom always taught us that was the way out," he recently told Halley. "I knew that the only path to escape the financial situation that I grew up in ... was continuing my education, and college just seemed like the natural choice for me."

While making the choice to attend college was an easy one for Tyler, figuring out how to actually do it was a challenge. Without anyone at home to guide him, attending college was like taking a "step out into [the] unknown."

Tyler graduated this year with a degree in political science from Emory University in Atlanta.


Lessons from Tyler Lattimore

On having to prove himself to his peers at college

[At times my peers] based my getting there — my being there — on how I looked, and what my financial history was. And at the beginning, I felt like I had to prove them wrong, show them that I was just as good as them, or sometimes you struggle with, "Well are they right? Is that the only reason why I'm here?"

But for me, it was OK, what do you do with these emotions? What do you do with these feelings? Do you internalize them in the sense that you give them validation, or do you look at yourself, and you say, "I own my experience. I've worked just as hard, and in a lot of cases harder than a lot of my peers just because of where I come from and what the learning curve was before me." And that's what keeps me motivated, keeps me going.

On having a different economic situation than his friends

You do deal with that. Like, your friends who have the money or don't think about it as much, about going out to eat every night. Or getting an Uber and just casually saying "We'll all split it," and you're not financially in the same place.

There were times where I heard my classmates say they don't even know what financial aid is. ... For me, it was a struggle between OK, do I pretend? Or am I honest with my financial situation? And I found that by being honest you create an opportunity to educate people — people who haven't thought about money in the same way that we have.

On balancing school, work and a social life

You have to make compromises. For me it was like, do I skip dinner and hang out and then go to work? Or do I balance everybody coming to dinner with me and walk me to work so we can talk for a few minutes. I just simply couldn't go to hang out with my friends every time they were getting together. ... You have to find that balance and it's OK to struggle with that and really try to find that equilibrium.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Going to college is a big deal for anyone. For Halley Katz, it's huge.

HALLEY KATZ: This is the biggest investment anyone in my family's ever made. I have to know for sure that if I'm going to be paying $30,000 a year in tuition, that this is exactly what I want to do.

CORNISH: Halley Katz is the first person in her family to go to a four-year college. This fall, she started classes at Point Park University in Pittsburgh after a few semesters of community college. And she had a lot of questions, but her parents couldn't really answer them since neither had a degree. So we connected her with another first-generation college student.

TYLER LATTIMORE: Hi, Halley. This is Tyler.

KATZ: Hey, Tyler.

CORNISH: Tyler Lattimore graduated this spring from Emory University in Atlanta. He sat down to answer some of Halley's questions for our series Been There, connecting people on either end of a shared experience.

KATZ: At community college, it's really easy to get really comfortable with doing well. And you're surrounded by other people who are going to community college and didn't have the money to go straight to a four-year school or didn't have the guidance to go straight to a four-year school. Did it ever feel like you had to struggle more to prove that you deserved to be there and that you earned that spot?

LATTIMORE: Definitely. And even at certain times, you had people - or my peers - that said that expressly. They based my getting there, my being there on how I looked and what my financial history was. And at the beginning, I kind of felt like I had to prove them wrong, show them that I was just as good as them. Or sometimes you struggle with that, well, are they right? Is that the only reason why I'm here? But for me, it was OK, so what do you do with these emotions? What do you do with these feelings? Do you internalize them in the sense that you kind of give them validation? Or do you kind of look at yourself and you say, I own my experience? I've worked just as hard, in a lot of cases harder than a lot of my peers just because of where I've come from and what the learning curve was before me. And I think that is what kind of keeps me motivated, keeps me going.

KATZ: What was it like trying to find common ground with the people that you went to school with? Like, I come from a poor family, and suddenly I'm going to be going to school with people that think it's OK to major in dance.

LATTIMORE: You're right (laughter).

KATZ: And maybe it is. But from my standpoint, I could never imagine going to school for something that couldn't have a job at the end of it.

LATTIMORE: You do deal with that, like your friends who have the money or don't think about it as much, about going out to eat every night or getting an Uber and just casually saying we'll all split it and you're not financially in the same place. There were times where I heard my classmates say they don't even know what financial aid is when we apply every year and my...

KATZ: What?

LATTIMORE: A few of my friends apply every year. Yeah. And I think for me, it was a struggle between OK, do I pretend? Or do I - you know, am I honest with my financial situation? And I found that by being honest, you create an opportunity to educate people, people who haven't thought about money in the same way that we have.

KATZ: How did that work for you, by the way? How did you figure out what money looked like and how to balance school and work and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life?

LATTIMORE: It was difficult. To be honest with you, you have to make compromises. I mean, for me, it was like, do I skip dinner and hang out and then go to work? Or do I balance everybody coming to dinner with me and walk me to work so we can talk for a few minutes? I just simply couldn't go to hang out with my friends every time they were getting together. And you just kind of have to do what you have to do. I mean, it's going to be some trial and error - at least it was for me - but you have to kind of find that balance. And it's OK to kind of struggle with that. And really try to find that equilibrium.

Well, what do you - where do you see yourself or what do you want to be able to say to yourself looking back after you are successful, after you graduate from your four-year? What do you want to look back and tell yourself, I guess?

KATZ: That I proved everyone wrong. That my high school guidance counselor who was telling me to go to a vocational school was wrong. That I went out, and I did it, and I made my name and proved that this was where I belonged and that this was what I wanted to do. And being able to look back on it from the end like, I made it.

CORNISH: Halley Katz. She started at Point Park University this fall. Tyler Lattimore graduated from Emory University this past spring. They're both first-generation college students who met as part of our series Been There. And if you're about to start a big life change and want to talk to someone who's already been through it, let us know. Write to nprcrowdsource@npr.org. Put Been There in the subject line. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.