It is 650 miles from the cotton fields of Arkansas to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I know because my two brothers, my little sister and I had heard from the crib about my parents' journey to make a better life for their children. Included in my parents' dream was a warm August day in 1982 when we all piled into the family van to make the 315 mile trip to Ohio. It would be the first time any of us would step foot on a college campus, and it was because my big brother was going to college. I was fourteen at the time, and the buildings seemed enormous and the campus never ending. I cannot imagine what it must have felt like for my parents, who grew up as sharecroppers, to stand on that campus.
I know that even though it has been almost thirty years since my parents made this life-altering college trip, there are still so many students like me who are first-generation college kids. Nationally, around 30 percent of entering college freshmen are first-generation students. Unfortunately, many do not receive a degree because they have little understanding of what to expect in college and are not prepared for the issues they face. It is 315 miles from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Cedarville, Ohio, and my brother often felt far from home. Another hurdle for him was changing majors. He went to college to become a doctor and dreaded telling our parents that he was changing his major.
A 2009 Education Trust report (PDF) billed as one of the most comprehensive studies to date of how low-income and minority students fare in college, shows a wide gap in graduation rates at public four-year colleges nationwide. 44 percent of underrepresented minority students who entered as freshmen in 1999 received bachelor's degrees six years later at the colleges studied, compared with 57 percent of other students. My parents clearly did not read any reports on college completion rates, but when my brother shared with them that he wanted the change his major, their response agreed with the finding. "Select any major you wish," they told my brother. "Just graduate."
This is why I am really pleased and proud to bring a resource to all the moms, like mine, who will stand on college campuses for the very first time with their children. My mom, as resourceful as she is, will readily admit that when her first son went to college, the process was a lot easier than it was for her last child. Her youngest daughter wanted to apply to multiple schools and go on college tours. The PELL grant that was available just nine years earlier for her oldest child was not to be found for the last Rice child. The process was confusing.
Today, there is a resource available to guide parents through this puzzling procedure. Through a partnership with the New York Daily News, U.S. News and World Report, the City University of New York, and the NYC Department of Education, the New York Urban League created a guide to college admissions for NYC families. The guide is designed for parents, grandparents and care-givers of students who are the first generation in their family to attend college. The guide examines all facets of college preparation, from entering 9th grade through the critical senior year of high school.
Sometimes I wonder if my parents knew the impact a college education would have on their children. It can't be a coincidence that they started their small business because their teenage sons were not getting hired at McDonald's and Wendy's. It can't be a coincidence that my parents always said that the proceeds of Rice Construction had one purpose, and that was to send their kids to college. It can't be a coincidence that my mom never missed a parent teacher conference and her grandmother never missed her Friday programs at her one room schoolhouse. It can't be a coincidence that my current work is squarely focused on engaging parents, educating youth and employing the community.
It's not a coincidence that I am in the role I now have, doing the work that I am compelled to do. It's 615 miles from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to New York City. My parents drove a long way to get me here.
Arva Rice is President and CEO of the New York Urban League.Twitter: @arvarice.