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Grand Rapids program helps first-generation and minority students get “to and through” college

woman with curly hair in green graduation cap and gown looking over wall
“We found that [in 2013,] about 60 percent of students were going off to college, but over the course of two years, only 18 percent of those students were earning either an associate's degree or a bachelor’s degree," said T2C coordinator Shayla Willis. ";s:

It’s a happy day when college acceptance letters arrive and high school students start on their journey to obtain a higher education degree.

But students who are the first in their families to attend university face unique challenges, particularly if they don’t have any mentors to help guide them through the complexities of college life. 

The T2C Studio: Grand Rapids Center for College Successis offering that guidance to students in Grand Rapids to help get them "to and through" college.

Shayla Willis is the T2C Studio coordinator, and Cindy Gonzalez is a Michigan State University student who uses T2C’s services and also volunteers there. T2C is focused on supporting first-generation and minority students who are seeking two- or four-year degrees.

Willis says that T2C was created as a place-based response to the needs of Grand Rapids Public Schools students, particularly first-generation students of color, who go on to seek post-secondary education.

“We found that [in 2013,] about 60 percent of students were going off to college, but over the course of two years, only 18 percent of those students were earning either an associate's degree or a bachelor’s degree. So we wanted to change that and move the needle from 18 percent to 40 percent,” Willis said.

The T2C Studio was founded to determine what specific challenges these students were facing. By providing a platform for students to share their college experiences, coordinators learned about the financial and social barriers that can impact how a first-generation student navigates campus life.

Gonzalez graduated from Grand Rapids Public Schools, and is the first in her family to attend college. During her senior year of high school, she was offered a full ride scholarship to Michigan State University.

But Gonzalez played an important role within her family by helping her single mother financially and providing child care for her younger siblings. So although she was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend college for free, Gonzalez had a hard time leaving home.

“I felt this sense of guilt leaving my mother behind as someone she relied on. I questioned myself sometimes, if it was worth leaving my family behind to get an education, or if I should stay behind and help her while I can,” Gonzalez said. “But then I had my community back home remind me that I would be better off helping my family with an education and a future than with just staying behind and doing the same thing that’s already being done.”

As someone who was a first-generation college student herself, Willis understands the obstacles that students like Gonzalez face. She says that many of these students grapple with feelings of guilt after leaving home, in addition to a slew of other challenges.

“What’s really big right now — and has always really been big for first-generation students — is that sense of belonging. Do I belong here? Is this place for me? Do I see other people who look like me, who have similar experiences to me, and am I connecting with them?”

High school and college students who reach out to T2C can find support in determining what colleges are best for them, completing college applications and financial aid forms, locating scholarship opportunities, and more.

Willis says that it’s important to engage communities in the effort to support first-generation college students and give them the tools they need to get into and stay in school. Encouraging schools and communities to share the responsibility of retaining students removes blame and prompts collaboration.

“We’re all responsible,” Willis said. “As one of our partners from [Grand Rapids Community College] Chris Sain said, ‘Retention is everybody’s business.’”

Listen to Stateside’s conversation with Shayla Willis and Cindy Gonzalez to hear how T2C is learning to track its progress, and the factors that play a role in building confidence in students who are applying to school.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.

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