Area college programs aid first-generation students

FORT WORTH -- Christopher Smith learned at an early age that his parents never had a chance to go to college but that with academic focus, he could make it.

"They wanted to go to college, but sometimes things just happen," said Smith, who graduated from DeSoto High School this year.

Soon, he will start on the educational path that his parents long advocated at Texas Christian University. Because he is studying to be a certified athletic trainer, he has already reported to school along with the athletes.

Smith is among some 19.1 million students projected by the U.S. Census Bureau to be enrolled in the nation's colleges and universities this fall. He is also a first-generation college student, meaning that his parents didn't get college degrees.

Nationwide, about a third of undergraduates were described as first-generation students, according to 2007-08 data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics. Smith and 177 other incoming first-generation freshmen will attend TCU this fall, out of a class of 3,000.

Colleges and universities are promoting programs and services to help first-generation students succeed. There are programs to help low-income students get scholarships, one-stop centers that put academic advising and counseling in central locations, and early intervention programs to get students on the path to college while they're still in middle school or high school.

"We know that they are a particular group that has even more challenges than the typical freshman," said Dawn Remmers, director of the University of Texas at Arlington's new University College. The facility centralizes a number of services that include counseling and academic advising.

The freshman year is crucial, experts said. Students need to balance academic and outside activities without hand-holding. Freshmen students also carry adult worries. For example, the recession has made the cost of college a common concern for first-year students, according to a Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey released this year.

First-generation freshmen juggle unique challenges, said Timeka Gordon, assistant director for community scholars in the office of inclusiveness and intercultural services at TCU.

Lack of money or understanding of campus resources are hindrances, she said. Culture shock is another problem, especially among students who don't research their schools. Students sometimes tell Gordon, "I don't fit in," or "It is not what I expected."

First-generation college students typically come from low-income families, and many are African-American or Hispanic, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. They are likely to arrive less prepared for the college experience and may take fewer credits in the first year compared with classmates whose parents have college degrees.

Many have to work while carrying a full academic load, and some have to postpone going to four-year college while they earn money.

Yulic Barrientos, an 18-year-old who graduated this year from South Hills High School, has put the University of Texas at Austin on hold.

Barrientos, whose immigrant parents didn't attend college, will start at the Tarrant County College South Campus. When his basic coursework is completed and he has saved money, he plans to apply to UT-Arlington and UT-Austin.

Without family members as mentors, Barrientos must figure out the college system by himself, seeking out information and guidance from teachers and counselors. He earned some scholarships and was accepted at some colleges, including Texas State University in San Marcos.

"I want to succeed and I want to do things right and I want to be the first in my family to go to college," Barrientos said.

To succeed, first-generation students need to become experts at going to college, said Lethia White, assistant director of student support services at the University of North Texas, where first-generation students made up about half of the freshman class last year.

White said first-generation students need to be aware of campus services and stay alert about financial aid deadlines. They need to know about Pell Grants and work-study programs. Attending freshmen orientation is a must.

But most importantly, students need to remember why they are at school.

"They need to go to class, first and foremost. That is the only structured time they will have with their faculty," said UT-Arlington's Remmers.

Bryan Hall, a senior at the University of North Texas who is majoring in computer science, grew up with a constant family chorus: "Go to college."

Hall, a graduate of Skyline High School in Dallas, said he has stayed on track because he knows where to find help. He also has a motto: "Get inspired. Stay inspired. Stay active."

Diane Smith,