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Opinion First-generation college students need strong networks of support

Georgetown University. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Emily Kaye is a first-generation college student who just finished her sophomore year at Georgetown University after transferring from an Ivy League school. The 20-year-old from New York is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in justice and peace studies, with plans to graduate in 2018.

By Emily Kaye

I started gasping for air. The doctor stared at me uncomfortably, offered water and then slipped out of the room.

I was alone.

I could feel the beginning of an anxiety attack coming on because the doctor had just informed me that I might have pneumonia. I would never find out if her suspicions were correct because the only way to check is to perform an X-ray, an action that my Medicaid insurance would only cover if I were shipped to the hospital in an ambulance.

I blamed myself. I should’ve gone to the doctor earlier; I should’ve accepted the out-of-pocket costs from the campus health center; I should’ve taken out more loans to cover these costs. Overwhelmed, my mind and body could only respond with an anxiety attack.

Now, a year later, I have left that sense of helplessness behind on another university campus. As a transfer to Georgetown University, I left behind my old school that did not provide a support network for first-generation college students. Now on a new campus, I still face problems paying health insurance bills by myself.

However, I am not alone.

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As a first-generation college student and a member of the Georgetown Scholarship Program (GSP), I can now visit the doctor regularly knowing that GSP will cover the costs. My parents still work to pay off the fees from their divorce, with my mother working as a receptionist and my father working as a paper salesman as they raise my 13-year-old brother. Thus, the additional costs of college often burden my family. Even before college, we faced difficulties living in an area of relative poverty on Long Island.

With GSP and my parents’ support, I now study justice and peace studies with a concentration in education access. My hope is to pursue an education policy career and then help other first-gen students pursue their dreams.

The GSP program supports 640 low-income and/or first-generation college students by providing loan relief as well as other support to help meet the emotional and financial needs of students.

In my second month on campus, I received a health insurance bill for a mandatory checkup that cost hundreds of dollars. Stressed, I confided in the GSP director, Missy Foy, that I wanted to help change the health insurance policy on campus to assist low-income students. She encouraged me to apply to a “necessity fund” to cover the costs. A week later, the program issued a refund to my account to cover the full cost of the bill.

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Across the country, many first-generation college students drop out of college. Yet, these students especially need to finish their schooling because college degrees may represent their only chance to break generational poverty cycles. With GSP help, 97 percent of students in the program graduate within six years. All universities should focus on supporting students in similar ways to ensure that all admitted students have the ability to graduate, no matter their backgrounds.

Colleges recently started changing their application structure to enable more low socioeconomic students to be accepted to elite colleges. Yet these colleges often bring students to their campuses without being able to support them. Financial aid may enable a student to come to campus, but a network of resources is necessary so that a student can stay on campus.

One GSP student in the Class of 2015, Hannah Schneider, recently won a Rhodes scholarship. How many potential Rhodes scholars drop out of universities each year because of a lack of sufficient support?

When my mother was my age, she left her home country of Ireland and moved to the United States. She sought to support herself with fewer resources than I have now, and with just the equivalent of a high school degree. Through her, I have learned resilience in the face of challenge.

Yet I and millions of students across the country still have to worry about issues that our parents cannot solve, such as health insurance bills, or the costs of a tutor, or even how to feel like we belong among a sea of students from private preparatory academies. But programs like GSP shows that with enough help, these students can flourish and succeed.