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When we get on an airplane, flight attendants tell us that in case of loss of cabin pressure, we must put on our own oxygen masks before helping those around us. Continuing education has the same effect: The more we invest in our own success, the more we can invest in the stability of our families and communities.

I will be the first within my immediate family to graduate from college. If one family member graduates from college, it proves to everyone else in the family that they can also accomplish their goals. I want to leave a path for the next generation to follow.

A college education is what will help continue my journey to success. I define “success” as realizing my full potential and helping others find theirs along the way. That’s how I plan to leave a legacy — and that’s what makes college worth the price tag.

In order to defend the case for college, we must continue to build support for low-income, first-generation students and students of color. We can do this by offering more flexible options for students to pursue college in ways that work for them, providing ongoing financial and social support for students, and embracing conversations around college and financial aid from earlier in the process. By investing in these areas, our students and communities can continue to see the greatest benefits of a college education and know that the investment is worthwhile.

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In high school, I pushed myself to take college courses through concurrent enrollment at the Community College of Denver, which allowed me to graduate from high school with a year of college courses already completed. Concurrent enrollment helps students adjust to a new classroom environment while also providing college credit, which saves money in the long run. The faster we finish college, the less money we must spend, and the more money we can save to help our families.

Having the option to complete college coursework while still in high school prepared me for greater success with less financial strain.

High schools and colleges should work together to provide more academic bridges like concurrent enrollment to help students graduate from college in a timely manner, and on their own terms.

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A college education turns our goals and dreams into reality by helping students like me understand and improve the world around us, while having a lasting impact on the community.

Students have vastly different college experiences depending on their personalities and interests. Colleges and communities can create flexible programs that allow every student to choose a program and a pace that lead to success.

First-generation college students can garner the full benefits of college with additional financial, social and career-development resources to support their success.

Many students turn away from college because of the anticipated costs. According to a 2019 report by the Colorado Department of Higher Education, tuition at Colorado’s public colleges and universities has increased more than 65 percent over the last decade. Scholarships and grants can help students make up the difference.

By applying to and receiving multiple scholarships, I can attend college without the burden of debt. One of these scholarships is from the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. This and other scholarships not only reduced the financial burden of college for me, but also taught me that the skills we use every day — and the foundation we are building on — are inseparable from the college experience and develop through our lives.

Related: How Educational Opportunity Programs graduate first-generation college students

My support systems in college have helped me navigate challenges and define who I am as a student, as well as introduced me to mentors. I have met other students who care about helping the community as much as I do. Making connections in college builds relationships among a generation of students who have a will to thrive and effect positive change in our communities.

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At commuter schools, students can have a hard time finding community on campus. Denver Scholarship Foundation (DSF) provides scholarships, which I also received, coupled with advising and programs that create communities of like-minded students. Through support from DSF, I have gained opportunities to network with business leaders, while also developing my skills in public speaking, reflecting and storytelling. These opportunities position first-generation college students for success to, through and far beyond college graduation.

To create lasting change in our communities, we need to start conversations around college and financial aid earlier for first-generation students. The sooner that students start dreaming, the more likely they are to see the value of continuing their educations. We need better resources in American high schools to break down the expenses of attending college. High school students often lack an understanding of how to finance their educations. Debt can be scary for first-generation college students and their families, but by exploring the process, we can illustrate the long-term benefits.

Related: Can a college completion crisis be solved by students sharing their struggles?

Many students question whether a college degree is worth the price tag. Now, more than ever, that question lingers in their minds with the coronavirus crisis and our faltering economy. Living in a pandemic isn’t easy, and it can be hard to choose what to prioritize. Unemployment is high, and paying for essentials is what we worry and think about most.

To those students deciding whether to take the path toward higher education or immediately get a job after the market recovers, I say this: College may seem expensive, but it is the solution to this crisis. All it takes is an opportunity and beginning a conversation around paying for that future. These conversations start in the homes of families where the immediate benefits of getting a job, paying off debt and helping out family are top priorities. As a first-generation college student, I had these conversations with my own family — and ultimately decided that college was the only viable path to long-term success.

This story about first-generation college students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Daniel Rivera-Ibarra attends the University of Colorado Denver, where he studies finance and entrepreneurship. He hopes to open a real-estate brokerage firm that will help Hispanic families buy their first homes.

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Daniel Rivera-Ibarra attends the University of Colorado Denver, where he studies finance and entrepreneurship. He hopes to open a real estate brokerage firm that will help Hispanic families buy their first...

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