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The Obstacles Facing First-Generation College Goers

April 25, 2014

By: Kate Westrich

A cursory viewing of the documentary First Generation might lead you to believe that the obstacle facing first-generation college goers is money.  The cost to apply to college can be prohibitive. Tuition costs are certainly daunting, particularly if you don’t know how, or don’t have the support, to successfully navigate the financial aid system. Attending college brings with it the costs of room and board, books, transportation and more.

By profiling Cecilia, Dontay, Jess and Keresoma as they navigate the transition from high school to college, First Generation does help to illustrate the many, many other roadblocks also standing in the way of many first-generation college goers, and low-income, first-generation college goers in particular. Among them support, encouragement, role models and access to information –areas where all four students profiled experience deficits.


Family plays a critical role in a student’s decisions around pursuing college. Cecilia is the daughter of migrant field workers. Her father was deported to Mexico and her mother is only peripherally involved in her education decisions.  Although it’s never stated as such, Cecilia essentially emancipates herself and begins living with a friend’s family. At school she participates in AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination, a college readiness system, which does help her prepare academically for the rigor of college and through which she receives encouragement about her future. Throughout Cecilia’s senior year, her living situation gets continually more precarious and her mother is very much absent from her life, offering neither emotional nor financial support. Cecilia does receive a full athletic scholarship to a local community college that allows her to pursue her dream of higher education, but not of becoming a UCLA Bruin, something that definitely could have / should have been an option for her if she knew how to access it.


When Dontay enters his senior of high school, he has already spent time in juvenile detention for dealing drugs and gang participation. He is living with his single mother, who is a recovering drug addict who notes at one point in the film that she likely could have paid for Dontay’s college with the money she spent on drugs in the past. Despite circumstances not being in his favor, Dontay is able to bring up his GPA and excels at football so is hoping for an athletic scholarship to college to a Historically Black College or University. Though his plans fall through, in part because of procrastination in applying, he does end up Sacramento State.


Keresoma, known as Soma, lives in a traditional Pacific Islander community in Los Angeles. He lives with eight other family members in a two-bedroom apartment and is recovering from the recent death of his father while also juggling his high school commitments and goals of college. Soma’s mother is particularly supportive of the idea of college and his aspirations to attend college, but she also has little to no knowledge about what that means. In one striking conversation, she asks her son for more details about college.

“Soma, this is a new thing. Who’s going to pay the fare and everything?”
“I am. That’s why I’m saving up for FAFSA.”
“How long are you going to be in the college?”
“Four years.”
“Oh, God. You’re my only son and you’re gonna move out from the family and I don’t know I’m gonna take it.”

Soma does go on to college, but the community college he attends is a far cry from Harvard, which, at the beginning of his senior year of high school, is where he said he wanted to attend school. He didn’t have the prerequisites to attend a university and didn’t realize that until application time.


Living in a small town and working in a family diner, Jess is an outstanding student and wins multiple academic and financial awards at the end of her senior year. In the end, even though she was originally firmly set against it, Jess attends a local college because it is more attainable financially and keeps her close to her family and boyfriend. Viewers learn the heartbreaking fact that she didn’t apply to at least one university because she couldn’t afford the $50 application fee, a fee that could have been waived given her financial background. While Jess still went on to college after high school, where she attended was affected greatly by lack of access to information.

(The film’s creators, Adam and Jaye Henderson were interviewed by the New York Times about their tough decision to remain observers as they filmed the students, even though they repeatedly wanted to step in and help.  “We just assumed that they all knew about fee waivers. We didn’t realize that she didn’t even know,” Jaye Henderson is quoted as saying.)

Becoming a First-Generation College Goer

First Generation is not a perfect representation of low income, first-generation college goers. The film is limited in that it only profiles students in California, which has a very different public higher education system than most states. By remaining kind observers to what was happening with the students, some of the more important issues that clearly stemmed from familial situations, were presented on film but not pointed out or discussed. Some attention was given to the support the schools were providing each student, but less time was spent exploring the different types of school supports and where those supports were missing.

All that said, First Generation is an important piece of film-making in that it starts the discussion about what it takes to affect the college-going rate of our country.

Learn more about what KnowledgeWorks is doing to make college a reality for first-generation college goers through our KnowledgeWorks early college high schools. Get details about First Generation at or watch the film’s trailer below.


Kate Westrich
Vice President of Marketing and Communications

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