BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- Twenty-one years ago this month, my parents drove 332 miles to drop me off at a college campus none of us had ever set foot on.
Amazingly -- and despite many fears -- two strict, traditionally minded immigrant parents packed off their only daughter to a far-away university to become the family’s first college graduate. I can hardly believe the series of miracles that had to occur to get me there.
And miracles are what most first-generation college students require to overcome their nearly impossible barriers to a university education. Or so I learned from one of the most dismal movies I’ve seen, “First Generation,” a 2011 documentary about four high school students who struggle to get into college, shows what happens when those miracles don’t come through.
Adam and Jaye Fenderson, the film’s directors, tell a compelling composite story of how difficult it is for low-income students to even decide to go to college, much less successfully navigate the application and financial aid process.
The beauty of the Fendersons’ casting choices is that the students -- an inner-city athlete, a small-town waitress, a Samoan folk dancer, and the daughter of migrant field workers -- are about as far from stereotypes as you can get.
These students are much like most other high-schoolers who dream about college. Some are top scholars, while others are middling, at best. They go to work, participate in afterschool clubs, and excel at sports.
Some have warm, loving families and others barely speak to their parents -- if they have them in their lives at all. Each experiences the painful dissonance of having loved ones who are at times nominally encouraging about college and then, moments later, guilt-trip them about being left behind at home.
But their biggest fears are about money. And the directors show us, in harsh terms, the reality of how low-income families worry about how to pay for an education. Without family members or friends who have graduated from college available to help, a university is a mystical, far-away place.
During one gut-wrenching scene, the mother of Keresoma, the hulking but sweetly gentle Samoan dancer, shows her puzzlement. “I don’t know how things go, if you have to have, like, how much the college?” she asks. “You have to have the whole amount at the same time? Is that it? I mean, I don’t know. But I’ll find a way.”
Keresoma drops this frightening aside: “I have no money yet saved right now for college but this one guy is helping and, he say, uh, Massachusetts, um, Harvard University, they pay your way to college. So, that’s what I’m thinking of going.”
The narrator, actor Blair Underwood, notes for the audience that with a 3.0 grade point average, such a highly selective school is unlikely.
In several other instances we watch as students -- one with no home or parents, and two others with only a single mom to rely on -- are asked, in all seriousness, by their school’s guidance counselors if they could ask their families for the money to pay for college. One cluelessly told an orphaned student: “A lot of time family members can provide some money, too. Aunts and uncles, grandparents have saved some money (for college).”
And those are just a few of the everyday tragedies detailed in “First Generation.” I hate to spoil the ending, but like 59 percent of low-income students who this documentary says are eligible for first-tier universities, none of our four protagonists makes it into either the college of their choice or one that’s a good fit for their academic abilities.
This makes “First Generation” all the more important to see.
A limited theatrical release, DVD and on-demand distribution are in the works but the film has already been screened nationwide at film festivals, universities, and nonprofits. It has been broadcast through closed-circuit TV at public schools across the country and on Capitol Hill for members of the White House, Congress and the Department of Education.
If you care about making college more accessible for low-income students, keep your eye out for this film or, better yet, act on its plea: Tutor/mentor a student, provide an internship, speak in a classroom, and give to nonprofits, scholarship funds, afterschool programs, and college prep organizations.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group