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AUSTIN, Tex. — Most of the people who grow up in Roma, Texas — a small ranching town on the Mexican border — don’t go to an elite four-year college. The ones who do must move at least six hours from everything they know. They are usually the first in their families to attend such schools. They arrive knowing almost nothing about life in a big city or at a major state university.
“It was overwhelming,” Jesús “Nacho” Aguilar, 23, told me as we sat at a table in the basement of the University of Texas-Austin with a group of Roma High School graduates who now live in Austin and San Antonio. “It was also liberating.”
I first met Jesús when he was a seventh grader at Roma Middle School, in a town where nearly every family was Mexican-American and where I taught English for two years as a Teach For America Corps member. When I attended the high school graduation for Jesús’ class, 88 of my 131 former students picked up a diploma. Of those, many have earned two-year degrees or are working on vocational certifications. Facebook tells me another is a pilot. There is more than one definition of success.
But, against the odds, Jesús and a small number of his classmates pursued and earned degrees at world-class universities. I wanted to know how they did it.
Jesús met up with me at his alma mater sporting running shorts and an acid wit. His friend, and fellow UT graduate, Tomás González, 23, is tall, thin and thoughtful. He’s now in medical school. Perla de la O, 22, the only one of the four who is my former student, loves Harry Potter, musicals and any sort of free festival she can find in Austin. She teaches at a Montessori preschool. And Eduardo Rios, 20, is still in school, studying business. He has a way of catching you off guard with thoughtful ideas you wouldn’t have given such a young man credit for understanding.
“It was a huge culture shock,” said Tomás of moving from Roma to Austin, where Latinos “are 20 percent at most. That’s the first thing I noticed.”
Statistically, there was a depressingly small chance that any of these kids, English language learners from low-income families living in a rural town, would make it to and through college, let alone a college as prestigious as UT-Austin. Only 51 percent of low-income high school graduates even enrolled in a two- or four-year-college in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. There’s an ongoing discussion as to how many low-income students graduate, since the government’s first crack at calculating that number last year was way off, but the figure is estimated at between 24 and 68 percent, depending on the institution and whether students take four, five or six years to complete their programs.
Related: The colleges that do the best — and the worst — at graduating low-income students
When you ask the young people from Roma what got them through, their answer is unequivocal: friends.
And these friends are very serious about being friends. They even named their group “La Raza.” Literally, “La Raza” translates to “the race,” but for most Latinos, the meaning is deeper.
“It’s like, ‘our people,’” Tomás said.
“Our gang,” added Perla. Though not a criminal gang, they hastened to explain, giggling a little.
“We just call it ‘the group,’” said Eduardo.
The group holds potlucks featuring food from home. They get each other jobs. They help the newest Roma-grads-cum-UT-freshmen find housing, the laundromat, and free food on campus. They share textbooks and help each other with homework. They carpool home for the holidays. They ask each other: How do you sign up for health insurance? Can you explain this financial aid form? Where is the registrar’s office? When someone is sick, they cook him dinner. When someone is lonely, they talk. When someone is struggling, they encourage her to reach out to resources on campus they know can help. When they join other groups — fraternities, the Hispanic Business Association — they go to the first meetings with another La Raza.
“We help each other with anything,” Perla said.
“You think you’re the only one struggling,” Jesús said. “But no. Everyone is in the same boat.”
Seeing each other struggle, knowing you’re not the only one crying in the shower that first desperately hard semester — that’s what gets you through, Tomás said.
“We are missing a really important power,” Tomás said of arriving on campus as first-generation students from a small town no one’s ever heard of. “Networking.”
Eduardo, the business student, nods. “We have to start our own networks from scratch. That’s what La Raza is.”
At The Hechinger Report, we’ve written about dozens of attempts to get kids like my former students to and through college: microgrants, college counselors, programs to help students graduate in four years, community college guaranteed transfer programs, pushy moms, and investing in individual students like they’re a promising stock option, to name a few. But one of the biggest factors in whether or not a student graduates from college is almost entirely out of college leaders’ and nonprofit do-gooders’ control: the students’ peer group.
“We know peer groups are either a key positive motivating force or a key negative force,” said Victor Saenz, an education professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the effect of peer groups on male students of color. (Saenz, incidentally, grew up in Starr County, Texas, a few towns over from Roma.)
And yet, getting young people to decide to hang out with “the right crowd” is a feat of social engineering few adults have mastered. Campus clubs, intramural sports and theme-based residence halls are long-standing collegiate traditions, all aimed at helping college freshmen find “their people.” And programs meant to bring students from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds together aren’t new either, though the urgency around them is growing.
“For first-generation students, it’s difficult to know what they don’t know,” Saenz said. “We need to do a better job demystifying the process.”
It can seem to adults immersed in the system — professors and administrators — that basic good habits like attending professors’ office hours when students have concerns about class should be obvious. Middle class students, though they may be in the know, are no better as potential mentors than these adults. It certainly would never have occurred to me at 19 that a classmate didn’t have health insurance or know how to sign up for it. Frankly, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that her parents weren’t handling that for her, as mine were.
Moreover, first-generation students, used to being top students back home, can be afraid to ask questions that make them feel dumb. They’re already well aware they don’t fit in and many are struggling to keep up. Asking for help can feel like an admission of failure.
And there’s enough of that in the first year already. The members of La Raza told me that upon starting college classes they’d quickly realized most of their high school teachers hadn’t been fully prepared to teach courses like AP Calculus, even though many AP courses were offered at Roma High School. On his first college test, Jesús, a star student at home, earned a 50 percent.
“It was a slap in the face,” he said. “We just don’t want to let anyone down. When I experienced failure, it wasn’t just my own failure.”
The pressure to succeed that kids like Jesús bring to college can be immense. They are blazing the way into the middle class for their families; families who care deeply, but who are not familiar with the higher education system. Tomás’ parents, for instance, aren’t sure why he has to spend another four years in school to become a doctor when he just spent four years in school to earn his bachelor’s. That’s not how things worked in their native Mexico. At the same time, Tomás credits his parents and their support for his drive to push harder and higher.
Related: Whose job it is to “nag” first generation kids into applying for college?
“When you factor in the family piece, the pressures and the guilt, that’s a whole other level than a typical college student deals with,” said Saenz.
When I went away to college and left my Massachusetts suburb behind, I felt no guilt. But leaving Roma is harder.
Seeing friends who have stayed in the area, gone to the local community college and who live with family doesn’t make Eduardo feel superior. “It makes me kind of jealous,” he said.
“It’s not like we don’t want to be back home,” Perla said.
“We have everyone complaining that ‘We have brains leaving Roma and not coming back,’” said Tomás. “But we can’t come back.”
When I lived in Roma, I imagined the solution to the town’s woes would be for the best and the brightest kids to return and fill the teaching positions held by out-of-towners like me. If only the students here had more teachers from the area, teachers they could look up to, teachers who understood the culture, I thought, they’d be better off. The young local teachers were by far the most popular ones on campus.
But here in the student union, 300 miles north of Roma, the students say the best jobs in their home town are hard to get if you aren’t chummy with the right people. None of the current teachers are likely to leave what are considered plum jobs and besides, none of the group members have chosen to become teachers through Teach For America or another alternative certification program. And, they remind me, there are very few other legitimate jobs in Roma for people like them: people with college degrees.
Related: How one little-known minority group illustrates a looming problem for colleges
I have written about the complex role of Teach For America in towns like Roma; there are benefits and downsides. But these students, the ones who wanted to go that next mile, to tread the path less taken, say they enjoyed having Teach For America teachers, or “TFAs,” as they called us. We were interesting because we were from elsewhere. We’d left our normal lives for a broader experience of the world, just as they yearned to do. We’d also majored in the subjects we were teaching, so we could better satiate their intellectual curiosity. And they were generous enough to appreciate our fumbling efforts to help. They appreciate the help they’ve had at UT-Austin as well.
The group ran through every helpful program they’ve found here: Freshman Interest Groups, which are now mandatory; Summer Bridge, a program that helps low-income students to get used to campus before the first day of school; the Valley Longhorns, a student association for kids from their region; TIP Scholars, a program of the College of Natural Sciences, and so on. They keep going. There are special scholarships, offices full of mentors, friendly professors and former Roma TFAs who live in Austin and host welcome dinners for freshmen.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out to your college,” Tomás said he tells younger students now. “There are resources, though they may not do a good job of putting their name out there.”
“Don’t be afraid to join organizations,” Perla added. “Freshman year, everyone needs help.”
“There are people looking out for people like us,” Eduardo said. “But we have to find them.”
Saenz hopes that schools and professors can start doing a better job of reaching out to students like Eduardo and his friends, so they aren’t left to find everything themselves. “We have to step up,” Saenz said. “We have jobs because they’re here.”
But the young people I spoke with don’t expect others to step up for them. In fact, their big idea for what could be done better for kids like them is that they — the members of La Raza — should establish a more formal mentoring program for high school kids in Roma who want to go away to college.
And though the group is happy to share credit for their success with everyone who ever lent them a hand, it seems clear to me that they did the hardest work themselves. It’s incredible, I told them, that they had independently formed the best possible organization to get them through college.
They smile, shrug.
“I thought we were unique,” Eduardo said, “but then I met a lot of people from El Paso.”
Turns out, there are El Paso parties, El Paso potlucks and an El Paso Facebook group. There are more students from the much bigger border town and they have different accents, but as far as looking out for each other, Eduardo said: “They are just like us.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.
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