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What first-generation North Texas students face: Grads share their stories

Dallas Morning News

Abena Marfo’s mother was always adamant about education. After moving to Texas from Ghana, her mom wasn’t able to pursue her own college degree as she juggled work in preschools with raising two girls by herself.

She encouraged her daughters to earn theirs.

In May, Marfo graduated from Southern Methodist University with three bachelor degrees — sociology, health and society, and human rights.

Throughout her academic career, she worked different jobs, some simultaneously, to support herself and take some of the economic burden off her mother. She toiled as a research assistant for a history professor, a tech lab assistant, a peer counselor, a residential assistant and a student ambassador for the university.

“I never had the privilege of just being a student,” Marfo, 22, said. She would not only cover her own expenses, but also help her mother whenever she could.

Marfo quickly realized a need for students like herself to gather at the university, so she co-founded SMU’s First-Generation Association.

As if going to college isn’t already demanding, first-generation students carry loads of additional stressors, she said. The campus organization connects and supports such students as they navigate college.

“We are our parents’ retirement fund,” Marfo said. “We have that pressure of ensuring that we’re successful … it weighs a lot because other people are depending on it.”

Marfo is now headed to start graduate school at Emory University in Atlanta. Marfo sometimes feels guilt both for achieving one of her mother’s own dreams and for the prospect of making more money than her mother. But pride inof her own journey overcomes such feelings.

“I don’t know where I found the energy. I was just … pushing myself so hard,” she said. “I was just looking at the bigger picture.”

First-generation students pursuing a degree step into a world never explored before by their family. Along with worrying about acing tests and writing essays, they also harbor leaden pressures — such as being responsible for their family’s success or bringing them out of poverty.

They often face more challenges than other students without being able to lean on their relatives’ experience.

While the way institutions define first-generation college students varies, the Center for First-Generation Student Success estimates that neither parents of about 56% undergraduate students across the country had a bachelor’s degree. The study comprises 89,000 students.

We talked to some first-generation students who recently graduated from North Texas universities about their journey over the past four years.

Facing more obstacles than the average student

Briana Morales’ family didn’t see college as a priority. So when she enrolled in Dallas College, she kept it a secret.

Obstacles were a constant as Morales pursued a degree. She balanced working up to three jobs to cover expenses as her scholarships only covered tuition, which sometimes meant she struggled to keep her grades up.

Then she got a scholarship that allowed her to transfer to Southern Methodist University — an achievement she’d never fathomed. Still, it felt as if her stress was constantly ballooning.

“Undergrad was so traumatic,” Morales, 23, said. First-generation students are “in survival mode for so long.”

Morales graduated from SMU in 2021 with a degree in psychology, making her the first in her family to earn a college degree. She is pursuing a master’s in counseling from her alma mater and mentors other students through SMU’s First-Generation Initiative program. (SMU is a supporter of The Dallas Morning News Education Lab.)

Morales sees it as her duty to empower other students like herself, to encourage them to reach beyond the limitations they may have set for themselves.

“Doing all the stuff that I never imagined I could do, let alone getting into grad school, sometimes it’s hard to reconcile where I came from and what I have today,” she said. “It is surreal.” READ MORE