Street | Cover Story

Being First: Part Two

For this two-part series, Street spoke to five first-generation college students about their experiences at the University. 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., and as far as Espartinas, Spain. Their majors range from psychology to operations research and financial engineering; their dream careers involve everything from education reform to going to space.

Shawon Jackson ’15 and Ana Maldonado ’16 have three more years of college left between them, but they, too, will be the first in their families to graduate from a four-year university. Both Jackson and Maldonado are active contributors to the Princeton community and campus discourse. Jackson is currently serving his second term as USG President, and Maldonado is the community service and outreach chair of the University’s Quest Scholars Network chapter, a resource for students affiliated with QuestBridge finalists around the country. Jackson and Maldonado are both QuestBridge scholars.

QuestBridge is a program that helps students from groups that are traditionally underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges succeed in the college application process. According to its website, “QuestBridge connects the world’s brightest low-income students to America’s best universities and opportunities.” Since its founding, the organization has matched over 5,000 students with 35 of the nation’s top universities.

Part of QuestBridge’s mission is to “revolutionize the way leading colleges and universities recruit talented low-income students, and the way these students approach their educations and futures.” Jackson and Maldonado’s perspectives on their time at Princeton thus far offer insight into how their unique experiences and backgrounds influence their approach to participating in the Princeton community — and their plans for the future.

Both Jackson and Maldonado were invited to participate in the Freshman Scholars Institute before their freshman years, a voluntary program targeted at helping certain groups, including first-generation college students, successfully transition to the college sphere. Although Jackson ultimately did not attend, the program does foster a sense of community within the group of participants and allows them to refine their academic goals, according to Diane McKay, FSI’s director and Associate Dean of the College.

“I would also say that many of the first-gen students with whom I have worked feel a sense of connectedness to others, and they have a desire to serve communities beyond the immediate community,” McKay said. “They are aware of the sacrifices that were made on their behalf, and the, feel a sense of commitment to improving the lives of others. I hope that we find ways to highlight these really positive qualities of first-gen students.”

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Jackson, who is from University Park, Ill., attended Illinois Math and Science Academy, a boarding school in Aurora, Ill. He decided to go to boarding school instead of staying in his hometown for high school because, Jackson said, “My home high school wasn’t of a high quality, and I wanted a better education.”

In his senior year, when he applied to QuestBridge, he ranked Princeton as one of the schools he was interested in.

“I did not expect to be matched at all in December, and I was very, very excited and pleasantly surprised when I got an email saying I was matched with Princeton,” he said.

The full scholarship that is guaranteed with every QuestBridge match through the National College Match program was a huge boon for Jackson’s family, he said.

“It was a huge relief for my family because they didn’t have to worry about paying for me to go to college,” he said.

Jackson, however, did not know his family qualified as low-income until he applied for QuestBridge.

“I didn’t even realize we were low-income because my mom and dad always did a good job making sure my brother and I had everything we need,” he said. “QuestBridge generally says, ‘Oh, if you’re under $60,000 for your income, then you probably qualify.’ I was like, ‘Mom, do we qualify for this?’ She was like, ‘Oh baby, we definitely do. Go ahead and apply.’ ”

Nevertheless, Jackson believes that being low-income has influenced his Princeton experience more than being first-generation has.

“I don’t know if being first-generation has impacted my experience as much as being a low-income student, though the two are definitely related,” he said. Even so, he said, “[My parents] instilled the value of education in me at a very, very young age, and they knew that even though they didn’t complete college, that wasn’t an excuse at all for me not to go.”

After finding out about his acceptance to Princeton, Jackson learned of the Wilson school and decided he wanted to concentrate his studies on public policy. His upbringing inspired his focus on education policy.

“When I compare my home community and that high school to the type of education I received at my boarding school, I noticed a lot of disparities,” he said. “It was always sad to me that it was the minority population, both in terms of race and class, that did not receive a high-quality education.”

Jackson hopes to become an education policy adviser for the government or a nonprofit.

Ana Maldonado is also a Quest Scholar. In her hometown of Santa Ana, Calif., she said, over 90 percent of students in the public schools are Hispanic, and a majority of the city’s inhabitants live under the poverty line. Her own parents are natives of Mexico and never received a formal education. Her father taught himself to read; her mother, who is deaf, never learned to read, write or speak sign language.

“Both my parents don’t have any education,” she said during an interview. “It’s kind of awkward for me when they ask, ‘What is your parents’ level of education?’ And the lowest they have is high school, and I’m like, ‘Well, they didn’t even go to high school. They didn’t even go to school to at all.’ ”

Maldonado first heard of Princeton in elementary school, she said, when her class flew to the East Coast through the generosity of the principal at a Princeton elementary school. In the first week of her freshman year of high school, she said that she walked into the counselor’s office and asked, “I want to get into Princeton. What do I need to do?”

When Maldonado was matched through QuestBridge with Princeton in the December of her senior year, she was surprised and thrilled, as were the teachers and counselors who had served as her mentors. When she told her father she had gotten into a school across the country, however, he had the opposite reaction.

“He just flat-out did not talk to me for the rest of the day,” she said. Her father tried to persuade her to attend the University of California, Irvine because it was a 15-minute drive from their house, she said.

“I was trying to explain it to him: ‘Dad. If someone were to give you a Ferrari, and it’s free, and someone gives you, I don’t know, a Honda Civic, and it’s not necessarily free — maybe you have to pay a grand or two — which one would you take, Dad?’ ” Maldonado recalled. “He still didn’t really get it.”

Eventually, he came around, Maldonado said. She participated in FSI the summer before her freshman year and felt more or less prepared to tackle Princeton academically. What she was less prepared for, however, was the tug she felt from her life back home.

“The hard thing for me, freshman year, was balancing between life here and life at home. For the most part, [my life] was life at home,” she said. “The first semester, my dad was unemployed, so it was constant, ‘Okay, see if there are any jobs, submit my application.’ ”

Her father called often, she said, as did her sister, at times seeking help with finals when Maldonado was studying for her own.

“That was mainly the biggest struggle, having to answer the phone, because I can’t just ignore it, and having to sleep late because I have to do homework, or just because my sister is on the phone with me until one in the morning,” she said.

On campus, she has found faculty mentors who have helped her make important decisions, such as switching out of the premed track and deciding to major in psychology. When Maldonado decided to leave behind her life-long goal of becoming a doctor, her father struggled to understand her reasoning.

“That’s the problem, when you grow up and you’re first-gen, the only jobs you know are being a doctor, being a lawyer, being a teacher, possibly being an engineer. But most of us don’t think of other things like going to grad school,” she said. ”I told him, ‘[Being a doctor is] my number two and I don’t want to go for my number two if I want my number one.’ ” She plans to become a family or couples’ therapist.

Maldonado is active within the Quest Scholars Network on campus and recently attended the second annual First-Generation College Student Summit at Amherst College. She noted that there are initiatives other colleges have instituted, such as a winter coat fund and a day when professors who were also first-generation wear T-shirts that identify them as such, that she would like to see at Princeton. She also questioned the fact that the University’s expectation for student contributions increases each year, when the difficulty of a student’s course load also increases with each year.

Overall, she would like for there to be more open conversation about the experiences of first-generation students.

“None of us are telling our stories so that people can feel sorry for us. You shouldn’t feel sorry for us because we’re here — we’re at Princeton. We did make it,” she said. She added later, “We didn’t get in here to just serve as diversity. Yes, we got in also because of that, so that we do bring diversity. But what’s the point of getting in for diversity if no one wants to talk about it?”

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