First Generation College students: On framing a college experience

Francesca Zepeda ’16 poses with family at her high school graduation. Zepeda is a first generation college student at Macalester. In the photo from left: Zepeda’s father, Francesca Zepeda ’16, her sisters, and her mother. Photo courtesy of Francesca Zepeda ’16.

Francesca Zepeda ’16 poses with family at her high school graduation. Zepeda is a first generation college student at Macalester. In the photo from left: Zepeda’s father, Francesca Zepeda ’16, her sisters, and her mother. Photo courtesy of Francesca Zepeda ’16.

Francesca Zepeda ’16 poses with family at her high school graduation. Zepeda is a first generation college student at Macalester. In the photo from left: Zepeda’s father, Francesca Zepeda ’16, her sisters, and her mother. Photo courtesy of Francesca Zepeda ’16.
Francesca Zepeda ’16 poses with family at her high school graduation. Zepeda is a first generation college student at Macalester. In the photo from left: Zepeda’s father, Francesca Zepeda ’16, her sisters, and her mother. Photo courtesy of Francesca Zepeda ’16.

Though around 15 percent of Macalester’s student body is made up of first-generation college students, their presence has been largely uncelebrated, and often ignored. For the first time this year, an event is being held to recognize the graduation of students from these families.

Across the country, there has been an increase in the number of college students whose parents never obtained a degree beyond a high school diploma. In 2010, more than 50 percent of all college students in America fell into this category. When she enrolled in Macalester, Francesca Zepeda’16 joined a large group of students at the college who are part of the first generation in their family to attend college.

Like most students at Macalester, some days Francesca wakes up and thinks, “I really don’t want to go to class this morning.” But, unlike most students, the thought that gets her out of bed isn’t one of looming homework assignments, or missed lectures. Instead, Francesca thinks of her father, who at her age was walking across a desert, often going three days at a time without eating.

“The [civil war] in El Salvador got to a point where he didn’t feel safe anymore,” Francesca says of her father, “so he got together with a group of friends and decided to cross — to weave up through Mexico and then cross the border into California.”

Francesca’s dad grew up in El Salvador. From first grade until he graduated high school he spent his mornings delivering bread around his city. After school, he would go back to work. When he graduated he asked his dad for a daily allowance of 50 cents to ride the bus into El Salvador to take college classes. “His dad said ‘no, you have to work, I can’t give that to you every day,’” recounts Francesca. “It didn’t make sense to him, to invest that money in school.” So her dad immigrated to the United States and drove trucks in LA. He delivered packages to a retail store where he met Kathleen, the woman with whom he would end up starting a family.

Kathleen Zepeda grew up in California. When she graduated high school, she was on her own. Though her family had the means and her father had attended a four-year college himself, they chose not to support their daughter through college. She worked her way through a year of community college. She left without a degree and then worked 14 years as a firefighter. More recently, her body reached a limit – years of long hours, physical exertion, high stress levels and inhaling smoke forced Ms. Zepeda to search for a new line of work. Quickly, she realized she couldn’t find a job without a degree. She got her Associate degree from the city college at age 52.

“Even though their life trajectories have been very different,” Francesca said, “there was a moment for both of them when their parents wouldn’t support them. And they each decided to do differently for their kids.” Francesca in part understands this as her own privilege. “If my parents hadn’t had the experience they had, they wouldn’t have been so invested in our educations.” But still, she says, it seems unfair. “They are smart, well-read people and they just didn’t get the opportunities that I did.”
Starting in kindergarten, Francesca embarked on a journey that would, in many ways, separate her from her parents. It was a path that they wanted for her. Her parents worked to get their kids into the best independent schools in San Francisco. It took much of their salary, but with financial assistance they were able to get all three of their daughters into Lick Wilmerding, a private school with a high academic reputation.

Francesca’s oldest sister was the first Zepeda to graduate from college, an event that was celebrated by her entire family. After graduating, she eventually received her law degree from the University of San Francisco. Now, she is a criminal defense lawyer in Alameda County. In this profession, she can live by a standard she has long felt to be true: every individual deserves a fair trial.
It is hard to imagine that her sister’s passions weren’t in some way inspired by her father.

“My dad wanted to be a diplomat or a lawyer,” Francesca says, “we always knew as kids that’s what he would have done if he could have gone to school.”

Those conversations as part of what made her the person she is.

Like her sister, Francesca has recently realized just how vast this influence is. At Macalester, she studies Latin American Studies and political science.

“It is really fulfilling and interesting for me,” Francesca says, “but I love knowing that I am sort of fulfilling one of my dad’s dreams. That is really important.”

Francesca hasn’t always been filled with this sense of pride. In high school, like most teenagers, she lived in a world with enormous pressure to fit in. But at Lick Wilmerding this pressure was exacerbated. Her family lived in a mostly Latino neighborhood where many of their neighbors were like family. Their small, two-story house was tucked in next to other family homes on a crowded street. On Mission Avenue, the main street near her house, Diego Rivera-inspired murals framed local shops and taquerías. In relation to her friends, Francesca had to “keep up” from the opposite side of town.

Often, on weekends, Francesca would spend money she earned at her own job on new clothes and shoes. This way, she thought, her background wouldn’t be a visibly defining feature.

“I was absolutely the poorest member of my friend group in high school. Absolutely,” she says. “We lived in a different neighborhood than everyone, I cried freshman year when I couldn’t go to sleep-away tennis camp with all of my friends.”

When she was younger, Francesca struggled with two different frustrations. She was first angry about not being able to do the things that her friends could do. But she was even angrier about why she couldn’t. “My parents should have been able to support me. They were intelligent, hard-working people.”

Now, at Macalester, Francesca finds herself geographically removed from this background. In high school, her friends were able to visit her house, spend time in her neighborhood and get to know her entire family. Here, even some of her best friends don’t really know where she comes from.

Most Macalester students are from out of state. They live far away from their homes and families. A student here may never see the home in which their best friend grew up. For Francesca, Lick Wilmerding High School felt far away from her home, but Macalester is even farther, and in more ways than one.

“Most of my friends are white. They are also pretty well off,” says Francesca. “My friends here are my friends for a reason. It really has nothing to do with their race or background, and that’s awesome.” But still Francesca finds comfort in the fact that some of her friends, most of whom she met through her participation in groups like Adelante! and Bodacious, have shared some of her more challenging experiences. Between her groups of friends, Francesca navigates a divide that many choose to avoid.

“If I go to an Adelante meeting,” she says, “and then go to a different friend’s room to hang out…the people in both groups are incredibly smart and I chose to be around them for a reason, but it’s so different.” In this way, since coming to Macalester, her cultural heritage has become a more important part of her identity.

Francesca was introduced to Macalester by way of a multicultural sampler for prospective students. She was flown to Minnesota and at once found herself in a room surrounded by 40 other minority students. “They were trying to show us Adelante and Bodacious as proof of how multicultural the college was, and I felt so commodified,” Francesca immediately wondered, “Am I only valued here for adding something to the brochure?” Sometimes, Francesca feels as though she hasn’t been standing up for herself in the face of this multicultural branding.

“In some ways I’m doing exactly what they wanted me to do and that’s strange,” she says.

As a political science major, the multicultural focus that Francesca regularly encounters is one that is framed in a dialogue of internationalism. More recently, Francesca has begun to raise her hand to challenge the notion that the most important social work to be done is based in other countries. To inspire this notion, she has begun to share more, in class and with her friends, about her own community. Eventually, Francesca wants to return to the Bay Area.

“I actually want to go back to my own community. I think there is huge value in bridging the gap between whatever you‘ve learned and been exposed to, and the community that you were raised in,” Francesca says. “And that for me is the biggest privilege.”

Only in her sophomore year, Francesca has already perceived the passing of an important threshold. While her parents have life experience that puts them miles ahead of her, Francesca’s formal education has now surpassed theirs. She can remember a time when they could answer all of her questions. Now, maybe, she only shows school papers to her mom.

“A lot of my academic experience here is really isolated from my parents and I really want to work on reconnecting them with that,” she says. “Even if that means sending a paper to my dad when I know that he might not have anything to say about it.”

Before anything else, Francesca wants to work on bridging the gap within her family. This desire comes from years of toeing the line between frustration and pride, between understanding herself as constantly challenged and also privileged.