A Year Into the Pandemic, How Are First-Gen College Students Faring?

By Anthony C. Ocampo Feb 25, 2021

On the second Friday of the spring semester, I emailed Paola Noguera for an interview, and twelve minutes later, she wrote back saying she’d “gladly” participate. I had never met Noguera—she is majoring in communications and I teach in the sociology department—and so I was surprised at how quickly she responded. A colleague who works closely with first-generation college students passed along Noguera’s name but hadn’t yet given her the heads up that I’d be reaching out. Her prompt reply signaled to me that she was eager to share her story. 

When I connected with Noguera the following Monday afternoon on Zoom, she was sitting in her living room. Behind her, her six-year-old son (the younger of two boys) was watching television and scampering about. A few minutes into our conversation, he popped by his mother’s makeshift desk. I smile and wave, and he smiles and waves back; Noguera’s focus though stays anchored in our conversation—as if to let the boy know “Mommy’s busy” without saying the words. 

Noguera was 31 when she transferred from community college to Cal Poly Pomona in the Fall of 2019. She quickly cemented a routine: drop off her boys at school in the morning, then head to campus for the day. “All I had to worry about was just being at school,” she said. But when in-person instruction abruptly ended in March of 2020, she fell into a new routine. 

“I was homeschooling [my sons] from the period of time that they were in school, which was from 8:00 a.m. until noon. Then, I dedicated an hour to each of them, just to do their homework. Somewhere in between, I made dinner. And then I logged on for school. I was probably on from 4:30 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. And then I wouldn’t go to sleep until 2 in the morning just to get [my homework] ready.” 

There was a carefulness in the way Noguera spoke as if each word she uttered were a step on a tightrope. But even with the television blaring and members of her household ambling around her, Noguera maintained an Olympic-level composure throughout our half-hour conversation. That is until I asked my last question.

“What sort of things would you want folks to know about first-generation college students?” 

“As a first-generation student, as a mother, at the age that I am now, it’s never too late to accomplish any goal that you’re trying to achieve,” Noguera says, unable to hold back tears. “I do my degree for them. My parents didn’t go to school. I would see them work their butt off. (Noguera’s parents are immigrants from Mexico. Her mother worked in a factory as a seamstress; her father has been working as a mail carrier for 32 years). So by me going to school, I tell my kids, if you want to succeed, you have to go to school and learn. That’s what I’m doing. I want you to see my example. If I can do it, then you can do it too.”  

Media coverage hasn’t often centered college experiences like Noguera’s. Much pandemic coverage of university students has honed in on the superspreader potential of residential colleges where campus social life revolves around football games and frat parties, not ones like Cal Poly Pomona, the institution Noguera and I share. Cal Poly Pomona is a commuter campus. Over 70 percent of students are people of color.  Many students are balancing school with full-time jobs and caregiving responsibilities. A Hispanic-Serving Institution, our university is known more for social mobility than its social scene. Three out of five students are the first in their family to attend college here. And by focusing on the “irresponsibility” of college students disregarding masks and social distancing, media outlets have overlooked the kind of students at campuses like mine. 

Noguera was one of four students at Cal Poly Pomona I spoke with to get a sense of how first-generation college students of color are doing one year into the pandemic (none are former or current students of mine). Even as the pandemic has presented academic and personal challenges they never would have imagined, they’ve remained steadfast in their goal of earning a college degree. Still, these academic trailblazers couldn’t help but mourn the loss of the college experience that they—and their families—had long dreamed of.

College Dreams, COVID Realities

When I connect with 22-year-old Kevin Black on Zoom, he’s in his bedroom in Fremont, California, about 40 miles southeast of San Francisco. The pandemic had just begun when he committed to Cal Poly Pomona (he was accepted at 11 other schools), and he assumed in-person instruction would resume by the time he was scheduled to move to Southern California. He had his dorm assignment, selected a meal plan, and was scouting hotels for when his family traveled to drop him off. “I was talking about [moving] every single day for months,” he said. But then the Cal State University system announced that instruction would be remote in the fall, the first major higher education institution to make this decision. It wasn’t just Black who was disappointed.

“As a first-generation student, when you move on campus, it’s kind of like you’re bringing your family’s hopes and dreams with you,” Black explained. “By you being on campus, it symbolizes so much of what they have worked for, what they have always wanted.” College had long been a family pursuit. His family moved from Modesto in the Central Valley to Pleasanton in the East Bay when he was a teenager so he and his siblings would have access to schools with better resources, although they would be among the few Black students.

Black’s excitement and motivation have waned substantially over the past 12 months (though he is still managing to pull straight As). The bulk of his college career so far has taken place at the desk where he was Zooming from. Forty minutes into our conversation, I learn that it’s not only his five courses per semester that keeps him tethered to his room. Black identifies as bisexual, but has not shared this with his parents; he isn’t optimistic that they’d be supportive based on negative remarks they’ve made in his presence about gay people. Keeping mum about his sexuality has added stress to an already stressful situation. “It’s like you’re constantly wearing a costume, but they don’t know you’re wearing a costume,” he says. “You’re just hoping that no one finds the zipper that you’re wearing and then unzips it and sees who you actually are.” (I asked Black multiple times if I could mention his bisexuality, and he said yes).

That Black even has a room of his own to attend classes is a luxury. Nineteen-year-old sophomore Earth Infinite Guerrero “attends” class in the living room with her brother, who is also a student at Cal Poly Pomona (students are still considered first-gen if they have a sibling in college, so long as neither of their parents attended college). “We have TV trays, so my laptop was on the TV tray,” Guerrero says, a grandiose floor-to-ceiling wooden bookcase presented as her Zoom background. “I was on one couch, my brother was on the other couch with his laptop on his TV tray. We were literally having class at the same time.” Guerrero, who identifies as Mexican American and Pacific Islander, sometimes does class from her room, but she shares it with her 10-year-old sister, who is also in Zoom classes through most of the morning and early afternoon. 

Guerrero’s family endured a cascade of challenges throughout the pandemic. Their landlord sold their home and they had to move mid-semester. Her father had to close down his business. Her mother worked as a frontliner at a supermarket, and later at Costco. She and her brother contemplated dropping out of school so they could work full-time and help their parents financially but ultimately decided against it. Still, Guerrero says she has yet to reckon with the emotional stress of the past year. “I was in a dark place mentally and just not looking toward the future,” she told me. 

Financial precarity was commonplace among first-gen college students, and the pandemic has worsened their economic anxieties. Vanessa Joseph, a 27-year-old senior, is taking five classes and working two jobs, one at the university’s Womxn’s Resource Center and the other a center for children with autism. Working 40 hours a week is not unusual for Cal Poly Pomona students, and Joseph needs both jobs to pay for an apartment, living expenses, books and health insurance. She has cultivated community with other first-gen students through social media and said many of her counterparts have to be at work while attending classes that are only offered live and at limited times. Joseph recounted a recent group presentation, where two of her groupmates had to present in the middle of their work shifts. “They excuse themselves to go to a quiet room, just so they could get through the presentation on their phone,” she said. 

Joseph, whose mother is Black and father is an immigrant from Trinidad, credits her family as the motivating force through the pandemic. She is graduating this May with a degree in sociology with an emphasis on social work. “My family is my motivation,” she says. “I don’t think I could have gotten this far [without them]” There was no shortage of moments in the past year when she felt like quitting, but her family was there to intervene. “I would call my mom and I’d be like, ‘I can’t do it.’ And she’d say, ‘Just try. Just don’t even look at the clock. Just hustle.’” Joseph is aware of what her accomplishment would mean, especially at a campus where just three percent of students are Black

For Noguera and Guerrero, getting involved in campus initiatives has helped them cultivate a network of support while instilling them with a renewed sense of purpose. Guerrero started working at the Asian Pacific Islander Student Center, which creates opportunities to connect with other students of color on campus, many of whom are also first-gen. “[Working at the center] helped me find my way back to looking towards my future,” Guerrero told me. Noguera recently acquired a paid internship working on student issues for the California Faculty Association. At the moment, she’s working on a campaign to channel funds from campus police to expanding mental health resources for students.

There is power in sharing the intimate details of first-gen students’ lives during the pandemic. Recently, I asked my students to fill out a Google form sharing things they wish their professors knew. The form was anonymous, but I told them I’d share their submissions with other educators so they’d have a sense of what students were facing. Some of the challenges they faced included: having family members in their household becoming sick with COVID, depression and other mental health struggles, having to homeschool their children while attending their own classes, not having a quiet place to attend virtual classes because they share a room with their parents, losing their jobs and being unable to pay for living expenses. I shared a summary of their responses on Twitter. The post was retweeted over 20,000 times and was seen by over five million accounts. Many professors engaged with the tweet, echoing that they’d seen similar things with their students. Students who saw the post said it resonated

A year into the pandemic, it’s clear: first-gen college students are doing their absolute best. As their professor, I am constantly re-evaluating how to address their needs. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, I assumed holding class live was optimal so that students would maintain a sense of connection with their classmates and the campus. And then I polled the students. I learned that over half of my students preferred class to be asynchronous. For students whose children’s schools and daycare facilities shut down or whose employers abruptly changed their work hours, being able to watch a lecture at will was ideal. It alleviated the daily pressure of having to show up to class live. This is just one example of how centering my students’ needs facilitated a shift in my classroom approach. Ultimately, centering the experiences of first-generation college students during the pandemic forces educators to reckon with the structural inequalities our most vulnerable students were facing long before the pandemic. 

Anthony Ocampo, Ph.D. is the author of “The Latinos of Asia” and the forthcoming “Brown and Gay in L.A.” He is an associate professor of sociology at Cal Poly Pomona. You can follow him at @anthonyocampo.