Two new documentaries look at the difficulties that many first-generation and poor young people face as they attempt to get a college degree.
“Personal Statement” tells the stories of three remarkable Brooklyn high school seniors who have to find their own way through the college application process and the struggles they face in school and at home. Another documentary film, “Unlikely,” shows us five nontraditional students in Akron, Ohio; Atlanta; Boston; and Los Angeles as they fight to win a second chance at a college degree.
This post about both films and what they tell us about a slice of American life today was written by Liz Willen, a veteran journalist and editor of the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. This was first published on the Hechinger Report, and she gave me permission to publish it.
By Liz Willen
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Enoch Jemmott’s shot at a college education depends entirely on a football scholarship, along with tracking down the financial aid documents he needs from his homeless mother.
Christine Rodriguez can go to college only if she convinces her reluctant mother that girls deserve the same chance at higher education as boys.
Karoline Jimenez pins her hopes on getting into Smith College, rushing to finish her application while enduring shouting from her drunken father at home and harassment at school for being openly gay.
The challenging admissions journeys these three public high school seniors from Brooklyn face provide a dramatic story line for “Personal Statement,” a stunning new documentary by Juliane Dressner and Eddie Martinez, available at various times on PBS stations and being shown at film festivals throughout the country. (More on how to watch here.)
Their stories starkly illustrate the fragile support system that low-income students in public schools with few resources encounter, every step of the way, as they navigate getting into college and paying for it.
Football star Enoch, activist Christine and immigrant Karoline are captivating; you can’t help rooting for them. Yet as all three tackle family problems, academic demands and their own college dreams, they are simultaneously helping other students try to get into college, as well.
The roadblocks they face are exacerbated by the severe lack of guidance counselors at the public schools where students most need help and support for their higher education quests.
All three seniors featured in the film embark on their fraught and uncertain journeys while volunteering with CARA (College Access: Research & Action), a New York City-based nonprofit that helps give first-generation and low-income college students support toward getting into college — and staying there. They trained for more than 70 hours for the positions.
And the obstacles don’t stop after high school. “Unlikely,” another new documentary related to college attainment, stems from the experience of Jaye Fenderson, a former admissions officer at Columbia University who became concerned by what she saw as the exclusionary nature of her Ivy League alma mater.
At the start of “Unlikely,” Fenderson is seen rejecting piles of applications in her office at Columbia, marking folders with a giant “U,” for “unlikely to be admitted.” Last year, only 2,214 applicants out of more than 40,203 got in.
After she leaves Columbia, Fenderson wonders what more equitable and affordable higher-ed options might look like. The result informs the feature-length documentary she made with her husband, Adam Fenderson of Three Frame Media.
Clarissa Santana is a mother of three who is frustrated when she returns to college at the University of Akron and learns her credits from a for-profit school don’t transfer. She tells her story in “Unlikely.”
“Unlikely” details the hardships of five nontraditional students as they push for a second chance at a college degree. In the meantime, they work at warehouses, motels and Starbucks. They struggle with staggering debt and day-care costs. Once again, you are taken in by the students and their personal stories and can’t help rooting for them.
This film is at its best when telling these stories, although it is enhanced by thoughtful interviews from top experts and innovators trying nontraditional ideas and solutions, among them Bridget Burns of the University Innovation Alliance; Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark.
Just as in “Personal Statement,” the real stars of this documentary are the students. Their struggles to achieve a better life illuminate endless barriers that keep so many first-generation and low-income students from finishing college. These are stories that don’t tend to make headlines, much less movies.
“Personal Statement” stakes out a position, in partnership with the Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success at American University. The filmmakers started a post-film impact campaign aimed at building more resources to help close the college guidance gap.
The film itself wisely stays closely connected with the three students and their stories. I was so eager to learn where Enoch, Christine and Karoline landed that I tracked down a post-screening conversation to find out.
The film’s campaign for more guidance counselors correctly hits a nerve. New York City public schools reported last year that only 2,880 guidance counselors served the system’s 1.1 million students; or one for every 348 students. (City officials recently said that the ratio has declined over the last four years by about 28 students.)
A typical college counselor in a U.S. public high school is responsible for 482 students, while the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no more than 250 to 1, along with a social worker — and even more support for schools with large numbers of high-needs students.
Dressner said she was motivated to make “Personal Statement” after she learned that “young people were taking it upon themselves to close the college guidance gap in their schools.”
Some of the film’s best scenes come as the students are seen helping one another untangle the barrage of baffling forms and documents they need. They hug and cheer and support one another while anticipating life-changing admissions decisions.
They struggle mightily with the dreaded FAFSA, the financial aid form that’s supposed to have been simplified but somehow is still driving my household and countless others nuts. Athlete Enoch cannot complete his application without a form he needs for it; your heart nearly breaks for him while he searches.
“I never thought that I would have so much anger for a document in my life,” Enoch later says.
College access and affordability are no longer the big presidential priorities they were under Democratic President Barack Obama, whose own goals fell short. The issues remain on the agenda for many foundations — including the Lumina Foundation, Kresge, Strada and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who also funded “Unlikely” and have been among the various supporters of The Hechinger Report.
Yet the need for better resources and support for students pursuing higher education at every step of the way should be atop all of our agendas.
It’s impossible to watch “Personal Statement” and “Unlikely” without thinking about how to get students the help they need to succeed.