Supporting First Generation College Students

By: Neel Saxena, Executive Director
Photos courtesy of AALEAD staff & various sources


Three years ago, AALEAD embarked in uncharted waters and no this is not a shark week post! We launched an extension of our oldest program, our mentoring program, to support community college students with career mentoring. That year, 90% of our youth chose community college as their path joining the 72% of Asian Americans who go to community college. While most, especially the media, are buying into the model minority myth focusing on admission at Harvard and testing at elite schools, the focus is shifted away from the majority of those with high needs like the 75% of Asian American students who do not graduate within 150% normal time from Montgomery College or those Asian Americans or that experience the highest rates of poverty in NYC or the Burmese and Bhutanese whose poverty rates are nearly double the overall population and triple the white poverty rate. At AALEAD, we have followed the need of our youth from starting in the Columbia Heights neighborhood 20 years ago to address drug and gang problems to moving to Montgomery County 11 years and Fairfax, 5 years ago to fill a void in support for youth in their academic development and social and emotional well being.

The Community College Mentoring Program filled the support gap by connecting students with opportunities like the Hillman Entrepreneurs Program at Montgomery College. After the launch in 2015, we recognized that most of the students were first-generation college students and their challenges were very unique and not being addressed by other programs. Many of the students come from low-income families and qualify for Pell Grants, face pressure to support their family financially and go to school, and receive no familial or school support about FAFSA and the college process. Research suggests that Asian American students encounter difficulties in seeking advice from academic counselors at community colleges and student perceptions of racism from faculty in such institutions limiting support of their unique challenges. At AALEAD we provided the individualized support where the youth were at through a career coaching model that linked professionals with students. In addition to the career coaching, we saw other areas of needs emerge that were not being addressed and often overlooked and impacting a majority of the students who are first-generation college students.

According to the study, “New Americans in Postsecondary Education: A Profile of Immigrant and Second-Generation American Undergraduates,” 93% of Asian American college students are either first- or second-generation immigrants, compared 23% percent of all undergraduates and 55% of Asian American college students are first-generation immigrants. The Asian American Psychological Association confirmed much of what staff and career coaches experienced in programs, these youth face numerous barriers to academic success: significant pressure to contribute financially; struggles navigating the college application process; racial discrimination; pressures to conform to stereotypes; and struggles with navigating multiple cultures.  Over the past year, AALEAD took this experience, 20 years of working with this population and looked at research to see how it can address these issues. Research, like the study by Balemian, K., & Feng, J. in the College Board, which shows participation in high school and college readiness programs, as well as academic and social integration, personal characteristics, and family support leads to improved outcomes for FGCS.

The Asian American Psychological Association recommends 3 key steps to improve support for Asian American First-Generation College Students:

  • Recruit and retain faculty and staff who reflect the cultural and language backgrounds of the AAPI community.
  • Increase resources for Asian American First Generation students:
    • support their transition into college,
    • encourage language competency,
    • provide adequate health/mental health services,
    • increase financial aid/scholarships,
    • initiate mentorship.
  • Realize and recognize the impact of historical trauma, colonization, racism, poverty, language, anti-immigrant sentiment, family pressures, cultural differences, and barriers to medical care on AAPI individuals and the community.

See how AALEAD’s culturally competent programming is providing resources for Asian American First Generation students through a newly created College and Career Mentoring program that builds off the Community College Mentoring Program by expanding the scope to meet the greater need for high school and all local college students in AALEAD’s programs. Next week, we’ll share more about the program and how you can get involved in supporting these students!

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