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The Biggest Obstacle for First-Generation College Students

For some high-school students, getting good grades, taking AP courses, excelling in sports, and scoring well on the SAT is all that’s needed to get into a four-year university.

But many first-generation college students have an additional hurdle, and that’s in gaining confidence and assurance that they can pay for it. Unfortunately, many of them lack adequate information about how to pay for college and obtain financial aid. So, in turn, many perceive the tuition at a  four-year university to be too costly and instead opt for a less expensive community college, even though they might want to and have the qualifications to aim higher.

Cecilia Lopez knows this all too well. She is one of four first-generation college students featured in the new documentary First Generation, a film that follows the students for three years as they pursue their dreams of attaining a college education. The movie was shown at the Naval Heritage Center, in Washington, on Tuesday night.

Lopez is a first-generation U.S. citizen and the daughter of migrant field workers. She lives with nine family members in a small house in Oildale, Calif. At North High School, she ran track and cross-country, took multiple AP and honors classes, kept a high GPA, and scored over 1900 on her SAT. She did this all while her mother was away for long stretches of time visiting her father, who was deported to Mexico halfway through Lopez’s junior year.

She dreamed of “being a Bruin” and going to the University of California at Los Angeles. She even rejected a full cross-country scholarship offer from California State University-Bakersfield in hopes of attending UCLA.  However, the burden of paying for college on her own and confusion over where that money would come from killed that dream.  She eventually took the offer from Bakersfield, but not without regrets.

“Now I know that most of it would’ve been paid for,” said Lopez, who attended the screening with the other students who appear in the movie. “If I knew, I would be at UCLA. I know it.”

Lopez said she didn’t even apply to UCLA because she grew impatient after filling out the FAFSA and “not hearing back from them.” What she didn’t know was that she would have received her financial-aid package after she applied and after acceptance. “I didn’t have anyone tell me that,” she said during a Q&A session after the screening. “I thought they would tell me how I was going to get before. It’s hard to think about it now.”

Carolyn E. Henrich, a legislative director for the University of California who attended the screening, raised her hand and asked, “So, no one came to your school and explained the process? We have outreach programs and people going to all the schools.” All four students shook their heads.

“They don’t tell you ahead of time,” Lopez said. “We never had someone take the time and explain this to us. I think the money is the No. 1 obstacle for kids like me.”

Now a junior at Bakersfield, it’s too late for Lopez to attend UCLA for undergraduate study, but she still has her sights set on the university. After college graduation, Lopez will be applying to law school there. “I’m going to be a Bruin, no matter what,” she said.

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