Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

Nov. 8, 2012 Volume 34, No. 12

MU event examined challenges faced by first-generation college students


College pays.

Studies have shown that college graduates earn substantially more over their lifetime than those who do not attend college. 

But for many American teenagers whose family members never went beyond high school, pursuing higher education is a giant mental leap. They have false views about college, and their access to correct information is limited, according to a documentary shown in early November in Memorial Union’s Stotler Lounge. Much confusion surrounds the financial aid application process.

“This is a conversation we need to have across the campus,” said DeAngela Burns-Wallace, assistant vice provost for Enrollment Management, prior to the film’s screening. “What are the barriers and challenges that first-generation students face?”

First Generation was directed by Adam and Jaye Fenderson of Santa Monica, Calif. Adam is a filmmaker, and Jaye is a writer and former senior admissions officer at Columbia University. They and a four-person panel of first-generation University of Missouri students took part in a question-and-answer session following the Nov. 2 showing.

The film details the lives of four California high school students who hope to be the first in their family to attend college. But the students confront an array of barriers.  

Finding support and accurate information about higher education was difficult for them. Parents of some of the teenagers thought tuition and fees had to be paid upfront for the entire education experience, or they didn’t know how long it takes to earn a bachelor’s. 

With no reliable information at hand, the students turned to their high school advisers. But the advisers were overburdened. There is one counselor for every 800 high school students in California, the film states. 

First Generation follows Cecilia, Soma, Dontay and Jess. 

Cecilia of Bakersfield and Soma of Paramount come from large families with little parental oversight. Dontay is a reformed drug dealer and gang member living with his unemployed mother in Inglewood. 

Jess works alongside her mother in her grandmother’s diner in rural Lake Isabella. Although she maintains a 3.8 GPA, the possibility of leaving her home and family scares her. 

The question-and-answer session addressed the challenges of first-generation college students. MU student panelists spoke of their struggles and successes.

Carrie McKinley is a senior psychology major with a minor in biology. She plans to pursue a PhD in cognitive science.

 McKinley wished she’d had better advise about college while in high school. 

“I don’t remember who my high school counselor was,” she told about 45 attending the event. “I personally didn’t have a teacher in my corner that I can remember, either.”

All four panelists spoke of the importance of a role model. 

Ashlee Reece, a senior communication major from Southern California, was helped by her great aunt. “She has a PhD now, and she served in a second mother role to help me through that process,” said Reece, who plans to attend law school after graduation. “It was hard. I didn’t know anything about financial aid or deadlines.” 

Panelists and the Fendersons emphasized the need to supply accurate college information to high school students. 

“Students who don’t have the support at home need support coming from other places in their life, early and often,” Adam Fenderson said. 

For more information on the film, visit

— Ashley Carman