"You're not college material."

My personal experience as a first gen, low income student and the importance of mentors.

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I struggled in high school. A lot, actually. My teachers described me as a "daydreamer" and "carefree" and "creative" in elementary school, but as I got older this was less acceptable and seen as disruptive. I had difficulty concentrating, I was easily frustrated with the material everyone else seemed to be absorbing with little effort but I couldn't manage to understand, and my anxiety made it impossible to walk through the doors most days. On the days I made it to the classroom, I would get hit with spells of overwhelming panic and leave in the middle of lecture. When asked where I was going I ignored the teacher, the principal, the secretary, the hall monitor, whoever tried to stop me because at the time I did not have the language to give them an answer. Even if I did, the shame of having a disorder would have prevented me from responding anyway. I was given Saturday detention almost every week to make up the hours I missed Monday-Friday. I was actually fine with this because the detention supervisor was able to help me with my homework and explain everything to me in a way I could understand! I didn't have to deal with a crowded room full of other students and I could work at my own pace. I could stand up and walk around if I needed to. I could take tests standing up, sitting on the floor, reading questions out loud to myself, or however I needed to within reason. This pattern continued all through high school and, because it was such a small town and things were very different 15 years ago, there were no referrals made for any kind of testing so I could access the appropriate accommodations without getting detention. I don't think they were even available at my school without being in what was called "EBD" at the time -a class with about 15 students with a wide range of needs and ages. Nothing about this was individualized. How was that different from the other classroom, other than students were separated by grade? My senior year I managed to graduate high school with a 2.5 GPA, took the ACT but had no idea that was a test I should have prepared for and could have had accommodations for had I been diagnosed appropriately at the time. I was told I did OK (even though I ran out of time on most sections), but no one knew how to interpret my test scores and when I asked my guidance counselor, she simply said I was not college material. She ended the conversation with what I was not, and we never had a conversation about what or who I was/am. A conversation that could have been useful when applying to colleges.

"You're not really college material." She said it so casually, and I sometimes wonder if she even remembers telling me this. I wonder how many other students she encouraged to contact temp agencies after high school. At the time, I believed her so I didn't think anything of it. I looked back at my high school experience and thought "yeah, what a joke". I felt ashamed for thinking I could go to college. I also felt relieved, like I was somehow let off the hook. I just assumed that college was somehow the automatic next step because many of my friends were applying to Bemidji State. I left her office and skipped the rest of the day of classes. After graduation I felt left out, my friends were all going to Bemidji State and I wanted to go to but I didn't know why. So I went to their admissions office and asked if it was too late to apply, they said it wasn't, so I filled out the application and the FAFSA, waited a few weeks, and when I got the acceptance letter I moved in. But I'm not college material. No one prepared me for this. Remember the anxiety I had in high school? I made it through a week of classes and was having panic attacks daily. I couldn't leave my dorm room and I was miserable. I didn't know how to withdraw from the college, so I ended up failing all of my classes. Same thing happened the next semester and I got a letter about academic suspension but I didn't know what that meant so I moved off campus and wandered aimlessly. I tried a community college a few years later, and the same thing happened. This old message, one that had become so deeply internalized by this point, "I'm just not college material" was playing like a broken record and it felt like a personal failure.  But what if it wasn't entirely my fault?

After my second academic suspension, I got help for my panic attacks. I was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and ADHD (that should have been diagnosed when I was a kid). Fast forwarding a few years, in 2011 I decided that I was absolutely college material and it was my guidance counselor who probably wasn't guidance material. I applied to Augsburg College and met with admissions to explain my circumstances and I was accepted! I started in January 2012 and I just graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication Studies in December 2015! It is not any specific individual's fault that I took the longer route, but when I finally took it upon myself to go to college there were questions I never even thought I needed to ask! For example, it's important to know whether or not your parents went to college! I didn't know I was first gen, nor did I understand the challenges I would face as a first gen, until I became a student at Augsburg and needed help with strategizing my 4 year plan. I was lucky to have the support of my academic advisor, a few professors who became mentors, support from disability resources (CLASS), and student groups on campus. I thought my biggest battle would be getting into college again after failing at this twice already, and now that I was accepted at Augsburg I thought it would be four years of smooth sailing! Not so fast.

Financial aid packages can change every year, and there is a difference between cost of attendance and cost of tuition. There is also a big difference between federal funds, institutional funds, scholarships, grants, loans, and private aid. Financial aid changes depending on your housing situation (on campus vs. off campus), some scholarships (outside) can be stacked, but others cannot and will reduce the amount of your institutional aid. The MN State Grant runs out after 8 semesters even if you fail all of your classes and waste four of those semesters. If you take out a SELF loan you have to start paying back the interest while you're still in school, there's a difference between fixed and variable so choose wisely. Academic progress is also closely related to financial aid, and time management is closely related to academic progress. This is just the tip of the iceberg and having the appropriate support is crucial, which is why I am so passionate about helping students who are currently facing challenges that come with being first gen and/or low income. I did not have an opportunity to join College Possible as a high school or college student, but I am grateful to have an opportunity to join College Possible as a College Coach and help other students this way. 

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Photo of Chris Good

Ashley, thank you so much for sharing your powerful story. Your personal experience has similarities to so many other students who were never able to overcome their own challenges (my own included). I wonder how your path might have changed if the support you finally received from your teachers, mentors and CLASS groups had come earlier in your school career? I wonder how many other students out there never find these resources?

I would love to see you share some of your own ideas for how more students can find this help - earlier - in the Ideate phase of this collaboration!

Thanks again for sharing so much!