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First-Gen College Students Face Extra Challenges Amid Outbreak’s Disruption

For first-generation college students, the abrupt transition as schools close can present extra challenges, both financially and emotionally.

Skidmore senior Luz De Leon studied abroad in Madrid in the spring of 2019. She's expected to graduate in May.
Skidmore senior Luz De Leon studied abroad in Madrid in the spring of 2019. She’s expected to graduate in May.

Senior Luz De Leon usually never leaves her Skidmore College campus for spring break, Thanksgiving or other holidays. A flight from Albany to Houston can be pricey.

But this March, since it's her final year at Skidmore, she decided to visit New York City. Together with friends, she saw Times Square, Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge and other sites. De Leon was about to head back to campus in upstate New York when she got an email alert about new restrictions.


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"Like if you left campus, then you wouldn’t be able to go back, which got me kind of worried," De Leon said.

She was worried that she couldn't afford her AirBnB for much longer, worried about getting her laptop and books from her dorm, worried about whether she should try to get an exception to stay on campus — or go home to Houston's Northside neighborhood.

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I'm still in shock about it," she said from a friend's home in Queens.

Like thousands of other Texas college students, De Leon is trying to find a new normal as many residential colleges, including Rice University, shutter their dorms and move courses online for the rest of the semester. The drastic moves are meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has put countries like Italy on lockdown and threatens to put the United States in a recession.

But for first-generation college students, the abrupt transition can present extra challenges, both financially and emotionally.

According to Sayra Alanis, with the Houston-based nonprofit EMERGE, it's harder for many of those students to book last-minute travel arrangements, many depend on work-study jobs for basic income, and going back home can put a financial strain on families.

"The mood right now in general is a very anxiety-filled, stress-filled and sometimes anger-filled space," Alanis said.

EMERGE helps connect talented, low-income students with top-tier universities. It serves more than 1,100 scholars from Houston who attend 150 institutions across the country. Once they're on campus, students get support from advisers like Alanis.

Her official title is “manager of persistence,” and together with other managers, she's helping De Leon and others navigate this new normal. And it's not easy.


Students are confused, students are scared, but there are just a lot of questions," Alanis said.

First, there were logistical questions, like how to get their stuff into storage, or how to afford a plane ticket home. Some students had flown home for spring break and had to suddenly buy two plane tickets: one to get their things, another to go home again.

Then came questions about work-study jobs and financial aid. Now, there are bigger-picture questions, like how they can study from home and still thrive in college

De Leon, 20, got advice from Alanis on how to deal with Skidmore's alert. She caught a ride with a friend back to Skidmore and had one day to pack everything up. She returned to Houston Tuesday.

De Leon said she understands the reasoning behind the decision to close campus: the global pandemic that is shutting down cities like San Francisco, New York and increasingly Houston.

But she already misses her best friends from college who hail from the East Coast.

"It's sad that I won't get to have a goodbye with them since I have to go home far away," De Leon said.

Some students don't have a home to go to, and some universities are allowing students to stay on campus for exceptional circumstances, like international or homeless students, Alanis said.

"Being back home in the best of circumstances is still a very distracting experience," she said. "You don’t have access to a library. Sometimes our students don’t have access to the internet. Sometimes students don’t have reliable even electricity access. Sometimes students don’t have food security at home."

Juan Venancio, 18, is a Harvard student.
Courtesy Photo
Juan Venancio, 18, is a Harvard student. When the school closed, he had to move back home to Houston, and says he’s worried about putting financial pressure on them

EMERGE is trying to fill in the gaps, connecting their scholars to resources on campus and sometimes with emergency cash funds, which about two dozen students have received.

But Alanis worries first-gen students won't be able to keep building their own community on campus.

That's what Harvard freshman Juan Venancio, 18, said he'll miss the most.

"What everyone says, even before I came to Harvard, they said what would make Harvard, and I would assume any other college, as great as they are, is the people in the community that you build," Venancio said.


Venancio had to move quickly from his dorm on Harvard Yard back to his parent's apartment in Gulfton. He says he's happy to see his family, but worried about putting financial pressure on them.

"I depended on Harvard a lot on, like, its financial stability and its housing,” Venancio said. “It really took a lot of financial strains off from my parents.”

"Myself and a lot of first-generation, low-income students here on this campus, you know, we really depended on these three meals a day that are free, housing that is free," he explained. “A lot of the stipend that we receive at the beginning of the year is free. I even have an on-campus job that, you know, helped me and essentially allowed me to not ask my parents for money and to allow them to take care of their financial situation back home.”

Venancio and other students wonder what the future will look like: "You don’t know what to expect. We could be receiving an email — or not — saying that we may not even be able to come back early next year."

Another EMERGE persistence manager, Carlos Perrett, said the emotional toll is heavy and he's heard from some students who feel guilty about coming back.

Perrett says EMERGE jumped into crisis management and will be looking ahead to continue supporting students as they settle into new routines.

"It’s going to be a time of strategy, of, ‘How do we encourage students to continue to take their classes? How do we encourage students to show up online, to email their professors to be in touch, to get confirmation about their assignments and how to submit assignments?" Perrett said. "I think overall, there’s just a lot of unknowns."

De Leon is majoring in neuroscience and minoring in French at Skidmore College.

De Leon is majoring in neuroscience and minoring in French at Skidmore College.


Skidmore senior De Leon is still dealing with logistics. Like where to study since she doesn't have her own room at home in Houston.

She’s on track to graduate with a degree in neuroscience and wants to work in research at the Texas Medical Center before graduate school.

But, she doesn't know what will happen with graduation in May. She hoped to cross the stage with her family, friends and even some teachers from Northside High School present.

De Leon said she's worked really hard these past few years since leaving her public high school to an elite private school in the Northeast.

"It was definitely a hard transition, but I made so much progress and it’s something that I’m very proud of,” she said. “And it’s kind of sad that at the end, it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be a reward for it, in a way."