Dominican University student Oscar Meza Quintero stands for a photo in the quad on Nov. 22, at Domincan University in River Forest. | Alex Rogals

Six years ago, Pawel Kawa was a bright, wide-eyed college freshman. A straight-A student in high school and the first in his family to attend college, Kawa, then 18, felt like he made it. At the time, he used his love of fitness to find his footing as a science major at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, but after failing his first test, he saw the path before him quickly narrow with an end in sight.

“I took a chemistry class and I got my first exam back, and it was like an 18%, and I was like, ‘Wow,’” recalled Kawa, now 24 and a junior at Dominican University.

Inside the university dining hall, Kawa mapped out the challenges he faced as a first-generation college student at U of I and spoke of the shame he carried once he decided to drop out. Kawa said his parents always supported his decision to pursue higher education but he could not rely on them to guide him through the experience, and at school he did not know who to turn to or where to go for help. He also started losing interest in his studies, changing his major from kinesiology to dietetics and then pre-physical therapy. On top of that, Kawa was struggling academically, a hard blow for someone who was used to getting good grades.

“It was difficult emotionally,” Kawa said, “because in a way, I felt like I was disappointing my parents, and I had such a hard time accepting the fact that I’m dropping out.”

Jenissa Nino, student support services coordinator at DU, said Kawa is not alone in his journey and sees other students like him every day, building out their own academic experiences. At Dominican, Nino helps run the federally funded TRIO grant program, which offers a set of resources for students who are disabled, low-income or the first in their families to attend college. DU received money for the grant last year and has, so far, pulled in 136 students. Roughly 40% of DU’s student population is first-generation, Nino estimated.

“We actually see there’s some intersectionality between these identities,” Nino said, adding that many first-generation college students tend to come from lower-income backgrounds, a barrier that, at times, impacts their decision to pursue a college degree.

“A lot of our students are awarded grants and sometimes loans, and they and their families don’t know what the difference is,” she continued. “Sometimes, families are so afraid of taking out a loan because they will be in debt for years to come, so they turn away and say, ‘Maybe college isn’t for you,’ or [students] are forced to work a full-time job, which ends up taking away time from school work.” 

Nino noted other first-generation college students may be navigating their studies or the financial aid process while still learning English themselves, or they could be like Kawa, who might have expected college to be like high school and was not accustomed to the level of work that college classes entail.

“They sign up for these classes, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m only taking four classes and only two per day. In high school, I was there for eight hours. This is going to be really easy,’” she said. “But they don’t realize the amount of work, the readings, the papers, [going to] office hours.”

Some of this rang true for 19-year-old Oscar Meza Quintero. Quintero, a DU sophomore, said he and his two sisters came to the U.S. about five years ago to focus on their education and find better opportunities, leaving their parents behind in Mexico. Quintero and his siblings initially leaned on their relatives in the Chicago area but later branched off on their own.

In high school, Quintero fumbled through the financial aid process while learning how to speak English and getting accustomed to the U.S. education system. Back in Mexico, he said, students can go to public universities for free; they may have to pay some administrative fees, but it is vastly different from the U.S.

“I knew since the beginning that [if] I didn’t study, it was going to be because of money,” said Quintero, who is studying math and mechanical engineering. “I don’t have my parents here, so literally no one supports me financially. I have to work a full-time job, and then study, and that kind of stuff.”

Dominican University student Monica Laddaran | Provided by Monica Laddaran

Echoing Quintero and Kawa’s sentiments, DU senior Monica Laddaran said she too found her first few years of college to be an adjustment.

In high school, Laddaran was on the International Baccalaureate (IB) track, graduated at the top of her class, and found college to be her next step. And while her parents encouraged her to go, the 21-year-old Laddaran said she often felt the pressure to succeed came from within and “set the expectations” for herself. A soon-to-be college graduate with an informatics degree, Laddaran said she is planning out her career and life after DU, including hunting for jobs and getting a master’s degree.

That’s the thing, Nino said. Getting into college is tough, but staying in college is even tougher, especially for first-generation college students. Nino said that’s why she urges higher education institutions to create a backbone of support and services for students. 

“What resources do we have? And if we don’t have any, what can we create to make sure these students are not just off our radar and we’re not worried about them?” are the questions she asks herself daily. “We need to come up with plans to not only get students in college but keep them in college.”

Laddaran, who works as a peer mentor for one of the TRIO programs, said she is eager to help other students and open up about the hurdles she encountered as a first-generation college student and soon-to-be graduate.

“I absolutely love it because I get to hear the struggles they deal with and then just try to figure out ways I can help them,” she said.

When Kawa left U of I and returned home, he took some time off from school and picked up a couple of retail jobs. He felt depressed, lost in an identity crisis: “Who am I? What am I doing?” It wasn’t until he confided in his older brother for advice that he finally saw a light at the end of the dark tunnel. 

“I was at the point of tears,” Kawa said, “and he really inspired me to get back on track and start making intelligent decisions and setting goals for myself and actively pursuing those goals, instead of just living in my fantasy world.

“That conversation with him really just reset my thinking and opened my eyes and facilitated my growth,” he added.

From there, he made his way to Triton College and stumbled on an accounting class, sparking a newfound interest that has led him to pursue an accounting degree at Dominican University and a new world of possibilities.

Now Kawa’s back — and focused more than ever.

When asked what advice he had for other first-generation college students, he offered this: “Pick something and aim at it.”

“I want to say have complete tunnel vision. Pick one thing and do everything in your power to invest all your energy and do everything in your power to make that thing a reality.”

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