For individuals pursuing a college degree with no family precedent — more than 60 percent of the student body at A&M-San Antonio — enrolling and succeeding in college can change how a family sees itself and moves forward into the next generation. A study conducted by the College Board (2004) shows that individuals who obtain a higher education are more likely to have a positive perception on personal health and have higher levels of civic participation. Studies also show a correlation between higher levels of education and higher earnings for all racial and ethnic groups for both men and women.
For first-generation college student Melinda Rodriguez, 27, elevating the educational bar in her family has been a long and unyielding road. Undeterred by her past and ongoing struggles she has successfully obtained three associates degrees at San Antonio College and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminology at A&M-San Antonio.
Rodriguez recently allowed me to visit her home, to understand more about her pathway to college. On the evening of our visit, I was welcomed into her home. A small Christmas tree illuminated the room. Green and red shone on the walls of the quaint dinning room of her mobile home. Her 10-year-old son laughed carelessly at the television while her newborn slept in a crib cross the room.
“I’m sorry my house is a mess,” she said, adjusted herself in her seat.
To tell the story of how she built a pathway toward college, Rodriguez had to back up to her childhood.
Coming to the United States to better her future, Melinda’s mother, Maria Aldape, dropped out of middle school and shortly after migrated from Mexico to the United States. As a single mother of five unable to receive government assistance, Maria Aldape worked two jobs to support her family. With no one to watch over her children, the children quickly adapted and learned to take care of themselves and each other.
At age 16, Rodriguez became pregnant with her son Carlos and dropped out of high school. After the birth of her son, she was determined to make a better life for her and her new family. She received her GED and enrolled at San Antonio College in the fall of 2005.
Of her five children, two of Maria Aldape’s children graduated from high school. Out of the entire family Melinda Rodriguez is, so far, the single family member to earn a college degree.
“I’m really proud of my sister. Living the way we did, you wouldn’t think that any of us would finish college, but she has always put school first,” Mayra Rodriguez said.
During our conversation, Rodriguez exhibited no self pity. Her attitude reminded me of elders who talk about a harder time and the good old days all in the same story.
“I don’t wish for anything different. Yeah, as a child I didn’t have the best upbringing, and I got pregnant at a young age, but I’m alive, and I have to think about my sons and be a role model for them,” Rodriguez said.
Aside from being a mother, a wife and a diligent worker, Melinda Rodriguez says she doesn’t let her life’s circumstances divert her from her dreams. “I believe I need to work hard in order to get what I want. At times I feel like giving up. There’s so much pressure from my family, cleaning, cooking and schooling, but I am determined. In five years I plan to buy my family a new home,” Rodriguez said.
With research continually unveiling the benefits of education, and with educational assistance such as financial aid, various scholarships, loans, childcare services and work study opportunity’s being made more available, the pathway to college is getting easier, but there are still major struggles. And each one of those struggles is an individual story.
Why individuals choose not to attend, or drop-out of college completely, largely depends on financial circumstances and the family’s educational background.
In a 2009 journal article, “Justice-Learning: Exploring the Efficacy with Low-Income, First Generation College Students” Paige A. Conley and Maria L. Hamlin write that “Family income appears to influence students’ likelihood of entering and completing college, despite academic ability or achievement. Additionally, first-generation college students coming from families of origin where neither parent has earned a bachelor’s degree are also at greater risk for educational attainment beyond high school.”
At A&M-San Antonio, we pass by first-generation college students everyday. What makes most of these individual different is the hurdles they overcome to get here and the daily struggles they encounter to achieve.
Resilient individuals like Melinda Rodriguez act against the odds. By doing so they find a place for themselves in the college world.
“I was the first person in my family to graduate college. If I can do it, anybody can do it!” Rodriguez said.