Cynthia Montes can’t help but smile as she talks about her students.
As an academic adviser for Student Support Services (SSS), Montes works first-hand with students who decide to seek a college education although they may lack the resources and a strong support system at home.
First-generation students are those whose parents did not graduate from a university, according to the TCU Counseling and Mental Health Center’s first-generation college student information on their website.
SSS is a federally-funded program that assists first-generation, low-income and disabled students with the goal of college retention and completion, Montes said.
TCU alumnus and former SSS employee Jordan Mazurek said many first-generation students at TCU are minorities from Fort Worth and the surrounding area. Fifteen to 20 percent of applicants and currently enrolled students are first generation, said Dean of Admission Ray Brown.
Montes said she identifies with the struggles these students go through to graduate from TCU, being the only one in her household to go to college.
After she did not receive a scholarship from the Community Scholars Program, a program that gives scholarships to students from high schools in the DFW area, Montes decided to attend TCU. She said she wanted to prove that she deserved to be here. Montes graduated from TCU in 2005 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and recieved her master’s in counseling from TCU in 2011.
“I see them every day, and I see the things they have to do and what they juggle,” she said, “They have all these other extenuating circumstances that cause them to have time commitments elsewhere.”
Some issues that stress first-generation college students are financial instability, lack of preparation or support, family expectations and conflicting obligations, according to the TCU Counseling and Mental Health Center website.
Lack of finances was a major concern for Montes entering TCU. She worked full-time at a grocery store near her home as an undergraduate, to earn money and stay connected to her family.
Montes said her family was proud that she was going to college but didn't really understand what was going on, which led her to become very independent and determined to figure things out on her own.
“I did a lot to stay here. From garage sales to car washes, you name it. Every semester I enrolled late, but I enrolled,” Montes said.
This included borrowing $4,000 from a friend to pay off her student account at the end of her first semester and, at one point, working three jobs to support herself while in school, she said.
Montes said she feels it is financially possible for first-generation students to attend TCU, and that the university offers a lot of assistance to students in difficult financial situations.
“TCU is definitely a place that if you fight for it, if you want it, it’s going to help you,” Montes said, “I believe that. I’m a product of that.”
Not all first-generation students experience the same financial struggles.
For junior community scholar and mechanical engineering major Raul Salas, college did not seem like a reality until his senior year in high school.
Salas said his high school teachers and counselors encouraged students to go to college, but never explained how to apply so he never gave it any serious thought.
Salas turned to his classmates for help with applying for college and said some of his success was pure luck, adding that he did not begin working on his applications until a week before they were due.
His parents were supportive and encouraged him to attend college but could not give him much help as far as applying, he said.
“My parents grew up in Mexico and they only had a sixth grade education, so even though they did want to help, it wasn’t an area of expertise for them," Salas said. "It was kind of difficult for me to try to figure it all out."
First-year community scholar and political science and writing double major Diona Willis said she felt college was necessary for her to meet her career goal of becoming a judge.
Willis comes from a single-parent home and, although her mother didn’t have a college education, Willis said her mom put her in programs that helped to prepare her for college. Such programs included TCU Upward Bound, a college preparatory program.
Salas and Willis both credit their acceptance into the Community Scholar Program as being a major factor in why they chose to attend TCU. Salas also said that being close to home was important to him, and this also played a role in his decision to attend TCU.
Salas applied to other schools, but said ultimately, TCU gave him the best opportunity.