Underrepresented Students Navigate Higher Education

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Students of color and first-generation students often find themselves working twice as hard to adapt to university life, though their additional effort is largely ignored by their institutions. Impossible to ignore, however, is how this additional effort and other factors affect their mental health.

The stress of balancing classes, work and bills comes with the average college experience. Lack of representation in classes, working harder for the same recognition and supporting family are all additional stressors for the average student of color and first-generation student in higher education.

Transitioning to College

UC Santa Cruz fourth-year Gabriela Gomez* is the first of her family to pursue higher education, her mother having left school in ninth grade and her father in sixth grade.

“Someone whose parents went to college, they already knew about it before coming in. […] [My parents] were really excited. My dad was like, ‘I won’t be able to help you financially, but I’m here for emotional support,’” Gomez said. “[…] It’s just that we don’t have someone in our family who understands, we have the support but we don’t have them telling us ‘This is how it’s going to be’ to prepare.”

Illustration by Lizzy Choi

Out of the entire UCSC undergraduate population, Gomez is part of the 31 percent of reported Latinx students and the 42 percent of first-generation students, as of 2016. She and others have found the resources designed to prepare first-generation students for the university dynamic cannot cover all of the needed bases or accommodate each student’s unique needs. Factors affecting a student’s unique circumstance can include how socioeconomic background can affect differences in academic preparedness, according to the UC Office of the President (UCOP) 2015 Accountability Report.

Dr. Rebecca Covarrubias is a UCSC assistant professor in social psychology and studies the ways institutions of higher education privilege one uniform way of learning and performing. She and her lab of 11 undergraduate and three graduate students found that this phenomena undervalues all of the other responsibilities and social pressures students of color and first-generation students carry.

“The struggle of coming here and having to navigate this really new system that doesn’t really feel designed for you, and then having to do that alone often if you’re a first-generation college student,” Covarrubias said, “And doing that while still having to maintain the exact same roles you have at home, because in many cases you’re playing really heavy roles for the family by contributing financially or emotionally. […] Especially in a place like Santa Cruz, because […] there’s so limited resources sometimes for students.”

Feeling Like an Outsider

Gabriela Gomez was encouraged by a high school counselor to attend UCSC as the counselor felt it is one of the more diverse UC campuses. Double majoring in psychology and legal studies, she found the color of her skin can still create a sense of isolation in certain spaces.

“I have had a few sections in both of my majors where I feel like I stand out, just because of my race and the way I look,” Gomez said. “It does make me feel uncomfortable but it’s something that a lot of students are going through.”

In a 2015 campus climate survey, the UC Office of the President revealed that 24 percent of respondents said they experienced “exclusionary, intimidating offensive and/or hostile conduct,” with 9 percent of that pool saying that behavior affected their ability to work and learn.

The term imposter syndrome, coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, describes the feeling that one’s accomplishments are invalid. Those experiencing imposter syndrome feel they are an “imposter” and do not deserve the success they have earned. This mindset is reaffirmed institutionally when the individual is not rewarded for their efforts and does not see others like themselves who have succeeded.

“If you don’t see yourself represented in spaces or if there’s a privileging of other ways of thinking and being — ways of being smart, that most certainly makes you feel like an imposter, right?” Dr. Rebecca Covarrubias said. “How can you ever belong there if you don’t see yourself represented there?”

If students are not actively validated that they belong in a space by having educators, faculty and administration who understand their added responsibilities, the built-up frustration can affect their desire to continue in such a high-stress environment.

“Extreme stress does impact somebody’s performance,” said Gary Dunn, clinical psychologist and director of UCSC Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). “The more pressure somebody is feeling, the greater impact it can have on their academic success and ultimately on retention.”

In 1996 California voters banned affirmative action, replacing it with a partnership between California high schools and the UCs that admits the top 9 percent of their senior class to a UC, ideally making outreach to students from low-income and marginalized communities’ schools more natural. The problem is, when these students enter the UC system, there is often a harsh culture shock as they go from growing up being surrounded by their communities to at times being one of a handful of students of color in an entire lecture hall.

Higher education still struggles with diversity. As of 2017, no UC has a Black undergraduate population of over 7 percent. In 2015, seven of the nine undergraduate UCs reported that a quarter of their enrolled freshman class were Latinx students. Additionally, as of 2017 five of the UCs, including UCSC, are Hispanic-Serving Institutions, meaning they participate in a federal program that works to enroll Latinx students to be at least 25 percent of their campus pool.

However, because the Latinx population of college-age students in California is close to half of the entire traditional college-age population, numbers suggest the UC system is still not proportionately admitting the majority demographic of California.

“In general if you go into an environment and you’re feeling non-represented, you’re feeling isolated, you cannot find a group you can identify with, that’s typically going to have a negative impact,” Dunn said.

Internal Conflict

Though Gabriela Gomez was excited to start at UCSC, when the day came to say goodbye to her family she broke down and cried. Growing up under the care of her grandparents, she migrated to the U.S. at age 11 to join her parents, and now she found herself leaving home again. She was anxious because family, friends and past teachers were not going to be able to support and guide her.

“It was hard [to leave home],” Gomez said. “[…] But inside I knew that I was doing it for a good reason. It was going to be temporary and later I was going to get used to not seeing them everyday.”

In her studies, Dr. Rebecca Covarrubias found the shift from a heavily interdependent family setting to an isolating independent college lifestyle to be one of the mental stressors faced by students of color and first-generation students. In some cases first-generation students are enthusiastic about higher education, but also recognize that folks at home don’t have the same kind of privilege, Covarrubias said.

By being physically far away from their family to attend university, students can feel guilt from being absent from their familial roles in order to pursue higher education. 

Of the 34 first-generation students Covarrubias’ lab interviewed, there were emergent family role themes the interviewed students maintain in addition to their college responsibilities. Responsibilities ranged from, but aren’t limited to, taking care of younger siblings, English translation for parents and providing financial support.

“It can create a lot of internal conflict. We look at guilt for example, or stress, when [first-generation students] have to choose between getting this school demand that’s very independence focused and […] still having to maintain and contribute to family and for a lot of students that can manifest itself in stress,” Covarrubias said.

Resilience

In many ways higher education fails to accommodate all of the needs of its admitted students, but students of color and first-generation students who balance added pressures in addition to everyday college stressors should be acknowledged for their added effort, Dr. Rebecca Covarrubias said.

“When I’m doing this work it’s all about the resourcefulness and resilience of the students and all of the different ways they’re navigating really tough adverse situations, and I think those are the things that make them beyond prepared for college,” Covarrubias said. “[…] They’re more prepared than they think, it’s just that we don’t reward those same things that they’re doing over a lifetime.”

Whether by finding support from their respective on-campus communities or getting connected to on-campus resources, students of color and first-generation students receive their degrees and in doing so set tracks for those to come. A significant portion of students of color and first generation students receive the Pell Grant allocated to families who earn less than $50,000 a year. In 2015, the UCOP Accountability Report showed that 82 percent of Pell Grant recipients graduated in six years, speaking to the success rate these communities.

With her graduation fast approaching, Gabriela Gomez wants to earn her degree and contribute to this figure.

“[I see] the statistics and the numbers and the rates of people of color who actually go to college but don’t end up graduating, they end up dropping out or something,” Gomez said. “[…] But I actually want to finish and contribute to that percentage of who actually graduated and go on to higher education later.”

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Chloe Reynolds is co-editor in chief at City on a Hill Press and an award winning student journalist. Beginning her career as a campus reporter, she found a passion for reporting on issues affecting communities of color on campus and in Santa Cruz. She was then promoted to be the Arts & Culture editor, which she changed from the Arts & Entertainment desk in order to effectively report on the struggles and successes of people of color. In her storyfinding she challenges the culture of what is classically considered “newsworthy”, looking for stories that are underreported and undervalued. She enjoys learning, unlearning and keeping her coily hair adequately moisturized.