Street | Cover Story

Being First: Part One

For this two-part series, Street spoke to five first-generation college students about their experiences at Princeton. In addition to being first-generation, some of the students are also first-generation Americans; others are not. One is not American at all. They hail from places as close as Brooklyn, N.Y. to as far as Espartinas, Spain. Their majors range from psychology to operations research and financial engineering, and they dream of  everything from reforming education policy to traveling into space.

In a few months time, Chad Horner ’14 will achieve a milestone that his parents never did: He will graduate from college.

At Chad Horner’s high school in West Milford, N.J., where he spent his entire childhood, most students were not considering schools like Princeton. Horner, however, began thinking about applying to schools like Princeton after taking the SAT during his junior year of high school.

“I took my SAT scores, and I was like, ‘Oh, I did well!’ I looked on collegeboard.com and looked at where the ranges are for the good schools, and I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I should apply to these schools,” he said. Neither of his parents could give him advice grounded in much experience, but Horner said that he learned a lot from reading the admissions counseling blog College Confidential.

“My parents were totally supportive through the whole thing and helped out any way they could; it’s just none of us had really any idea how it worked,” he said.

First-generation college students like Horner have comprised about 10 to 13 percent of each freshman class in the past few years, according to Vice President for Campus Life Cynthia Cherrey. Most recently, 12.9 percent of the Class of 2017 is first-generation, compared to 11.5 percent of the Class of 2016 and 9.4 percent of the Class of 2015, according to Associate Dean of the College Diane McKay.

While their first-generation status isn’t necessarily something that arises often in conversation, these students’ testimonies provide a window into the “diversity of the college experience,” a phrase often used to denote one criteria or another, be it ethnic, financial or something else. However, the reality is that diversity is often found at the cross section of different identifiers; each individual brings a unique mix of background, experiences and values to contribute to the overall diversity that the University champions as a priority on campus.

Horner arrived at Princeton excited to study engineering. His freshman year, however, was a challenge.

“I really didn’t know what was coming,” he said. “I was like, ‘I love math and physics,’ and then I just got killed. It took me a while to just adjust. It was just harder than I was used to.”

Nevertheless, Horner noted that school got easier, and that he values the perspective his freshman year gave him.

“I’m kind of happy that I had to sort of work through that,” he said. “Some people here have a very sheltered view of the world, and don’t really realize that it’s not normal to go to a high school and have someone in the middle of your class go to Notre Dame or some really good school.”

Horner also lacked experience with finding internships, but he credits his friends with teaching him about the process. In fact, he got his first internship the summer after his sophomore year, after the father of a friend invited him to interview at Bank of America.

“I didn’t really know how anything in finance worked until I got here. But luckily, the friends I made did. That helped a lot,” he said. He later added, “I think I’ve learned more from my fellow students than I have from professors in class.”

Horner will be working at PIMCO, an investment firm, after graduation. He enjoys the energy of New York City, his future home, and does not see himself returning to live in West Milford.

“People who come out of Princeton are the names you hear about in the news. They’re the people who run the big companies and countries,” he said. “I was never unhappy [in West Milford]. I just didn’t realize there’s other stuff out there,” he added.

Guillermo Cabalga still has a few more years ahead of him to achieve the same milestone as Horner: to be the first in his family to graduate from college. But his path to Princeton was different, as he has already lived all over the world.

His family currently lives in Espartinas, a city in the province of Seville, Spain. Before arriving at Princeton, Cabalga spent his last two years of high school at the United World College of Hong Kong, one of a number of international UWC schools that routinely send students to schools like Princeton. He also completed a scuba diving course in Malaysia and volunteered in Cambodia during the gap year he took between graduating from UWC and matriculating to Princeton.

His UWC education prepared him well for the rigors of Princeton’s academics, he said. He does not believe that being first-generation has been the source of any struggles, though he noted that the cultural differences between Europe and the United States are greater than he had expected.

“I have my own aspirations and pride without any relation to that fact [of being first-generation]. I’m proud to be here, and I have aspirations to go further, but I don’t really think it relates to that,” he said. “I need to get accustomed to America, in general,” he noted later.

His parents, both from Spain, were college-aged shortly after the end of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, when the Spanish education system was still in flux, Cabalga said. His father attended university for two years before dropping out to work.

“If we really want to look at it from a bigger scale, it is likely that my parents really raised me in order to be able to attend university because they didn’t get to,” he said. “And it’s because of that effort that I managed to get not only that scholarship [to UWC] but get in here as well.

Matthew Blackburn ’14 also learned the importance of taking advantage of opportunities and striving for excellence from his parents.

“They definitely were a key force in pushing me along and having the vision that I didn’t have when I was younger,” he said.

One of the opportunities they pushed him toward was Prep for Prep, a program for students of color in New York City. Every year, Prep for Prep rigorously prepares a contingent of students for placement in the city’s independent schools. Like most Prep students, Blackburn began the program in the fifth grade.

“I remember the big thing was that I did not want to do it at all. I was like, ‘Summer school? I do well in school. I don’t want to go to summer school,” Blackburn recalled. “[My parents] were the ones who [said], ‘Oh, this program sounds really cool. You should definitely do this program.”

In middle school and high school, Blackburn commuted from his home in Canarsie, Brooklyn to Collegiate School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Despite his initial resistance, Blackburn is grateful for what Prep for Prep has given him.

“With these kinds of programs, you start to see what you can get. I remember before, even to go to a college like this, I never would’ve thought of it — not because I wasn’t qualified. It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s not where people like me go,” he said. “Those are the kind of goals that you don’t see or things that you don’t think you can achieve until people tell you, so I appreciate being in that environment.”

Like Cabalga, Blackburn said that being a first-generation college student has not played a significant role in his life. He noted that, in hindsight, the transition from public school to independent school was “crazy,” but it also prepared him for the transition from high school to Princeton. Blackburn is an ecology and evolutionary biology major and hopes to pursue a career as a book editor.

“I’m a first-generation college student, but also first generation to go to a private school like Collegiate,” he said. “Looking back, it’s more like, ‘Whoa, that was a lot to go through to get over here.”

Each student’s path to Princeton was a different one, just as each Princeton experience is a different one. To generalize the experience of a group, such as “first-generation students,” inevitably diminishes the diversity the University wishes to create. It is the interweaving of individual experiences — and their known and unknown commonalities — that constitute true diversity.

“Being First” concludes next week with accounts from Shawon Jackson 15 and Ana Maldonado ’16. 

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