First-Generation College Students Face Challenges at UC Berkeley

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"You better go on to school or I'll take you onto the fields with me."

With this as an incentive, Jesus Miguel Diaz's parents, encouraged him to go to college. As a first-generation college student at UC Berkeley, Diaz arrived on campus as a freshman not knowing how to fulfill his parents' request and go about obtaining his college degree.

As high school seniors who have already been accepted to UC Berkeley decide which college to attend, first-generation students like Diaz face the challenge of being able to simply stay in college.

Four years later, now a senior majoring in integrated biology and a research project leader in his lab, Diaz recalls the difficulty of figuring out everything from choosing his classes to financing his education.

"I knew the main goal was to get out in four years, but I didn't know how. In general, I didn't know how to succeed in a 300-student lecture."

During his orientation, the Biology Scholars Program, which provides supportive services and advising to underrepresented students, helped him apply to classes.

The program introduced Diaz to other first-generation college students who were also prospective science majors.

"I was lucky to get into the IB major," he said. "I knew there were majors, but I didn't know there were requirements to fulfill. I declared without knowing."

UC Berkeley's entering freshman class each year includes approximately 30 percent first-generation college students, according to Walter Robinson, vice chancellor and director of undergraduate admissions.

According to Robinson, however, the state's decrease in funding to public education compromises UC Berkeley's commitment to serving a broad cross section of society.

"If (low-income students) get admitted, the question becomes can they afford it," Robinson said.

In addition, Jannet Torres, a third-year first-generation college student, finds that budget cuts have affected the number of hours that she works for her work-study job at Zellerbach Playhouse.

"Since I work for the theater department, they've had budget cuts, so I'm working less because they have less performances," Torres said.

Initially, her parents did not want her to leave home because she would not be available to help them manage their bank accounts and assist her two younger siblings with their homework. Now, she finds herself struggling to financially support herself and pay her monthly rent, which is not covered by her financial aid.

"I'd like two jobs, but I don't have the time," she said. "This past summer, I was taking two summer school courses, I was doing three jobs and a research assistant position for the psychology department, and that was just to pay rent."

While sipping a drink in the Bear's Lair Food Court that she says she should not have bought, Torres says this semester she has no money saved and no extra money to spend at her leisure.

Diaz also notes that increased tuition is "making attending Cal very difficult."

To save money by graduating as soon as possible, he is taking more units this semester. The increased levels of stress that he experiences as a result exact a physical toll on him as well.

"I have epilepsy (and) one trigger for epilepsy is stress," Diaz said. "It's putting my health at risk, not just my academic career."

Diaz's younger brother, who will be applying to college next semester, will likely experience this financial difficulty more harshly than he did.

"Its not just going to affect me but other community members back home," Diaz said, adding that "The chances of my little brother attending college now are slim."


Contact Hannah Moulthrop at [email protected]

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