Opinion

Matching First-Generation, Low-Income Students to the Right College Is Complicated: Here’s What Happened to Me

By Kei-Sygh Thomas | October 31, 2018

Kei-Sygh Thomas (L) attending an Education Nation student town hall while in high school with the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, an organization promoting leadership and activism in young women. (Sadie Nash Leadership Project Newark)

I am not one of the KIPP kids who finished college in four years. I will not be one of the KIPP kids to finish in six years, either.

On top of the challenges that came with being a low-income student, the college I attended was not the best fit for me and heightened difficulties to persist. I am hopeful for the fate of students like me, especially now that Bill and Melinda Gates recently pledged $92 million for organizations, like KIPP Foundation, to get it right.

In Newark, New Jersey, where I grew up, commendable efforts are underway to raise higher education attainment rates citywide. Charter-district collaboration on this issue — staff from three Newark district public high schools attended KIPP’s College Counseling Institute in July to learn about college match (also funded by Gates) — seems promising.

Pairing low-income, first-generation college students with their best college match is the difference between making it to college and making it through college. College match is hard. Even KIPP got it wrong.

Mom made sure I was challenged

“I met you in sixth grade, when you came to TEAM. I was impressed with how academically prepared you were. I’m pretty sure you were above grade level,” said Shan Martin, my sixth-grade Liberation Arts teacher.

Liberation Arts was my absolute favorite class; I can best describe it as an interdisciplinary debate, history, and language arts class filled with analyzing history and current events. The class felt like a Sociology, Black and Brown Power Movements, and Newark History 101 sampler, and I still feel like all of this is an understatement.

I went to TEAM Academy, the first school opened in Newark underneath KIPP’s New Jersey charter school network. KIPP New Jersey is now one of the largest charter networks in the city, one of the few with a robust K-12 pipeline. I started in sixth grade and graduated from KIPP’s Newark Collegiate Academy high school.

“That wasn’t the norm for a lot of students, who transferred in their sixth-grade year or came during their fifth-grade year,” Mrs. Martin recently told me. “A lot of our students historically were below grade level, so I noticed that about you right away.”

At previous schools, I was in the gifted and talented program. At one school that didn’t offer GT, I was escorted from my “social grade” homeroom every morning to upper-level classes. My mother demanded it. She grew tired of switching me between schools when she felt I was not challenged enough, as did I. My mother became a master of making lemonade from the sourest of lemons.

I was in New Jersey Orators, a public speaking club, and the SMART (Science Medicine And Related Topics) program, where I took STEM classes for two summers at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (now Rutgers Medical School), along with courses at the New Jersey Institute of Technology during elementary school before I attended TEAM and throughout middle school. My mom had a vast network of friends and actively inquired about such opportunities.

‘A person who was going places’

My freshman year at Newark Collegiate, Dr. Cornel West, the famed African-American scholar, author, critic, and civil rights activist, came for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Sophomores, juniors, and staff were invited to attend. I was indignant that I could not go, since I respect Dr. West and had read a lot of his work. I was told to write an essay analyzing one of his quotes:

“I remind young people everywhere I go, one of the worst things the older generation did was to tell them for twenty-five years, ‘Be successful, be successful, be successful,’ as opposed to, ‘Be great, be great, be great.’ There’s a qualitative difference.”

I worked on the essay for hours, using my mom as a thought partner, and after successfully arguing my case, I was the only freshman in the room.

“You were more advanced than your typical freshman. You had the consciousness to know who Cornel West was and that this was a big deal. That stuck with me about you through the rest of the time that I was an educator for you,” said Jeff Fleming, who later became my 10th-grade history teacher. “That this was a person who was going places, was doing things, was understanding that the world was much bigger than her bubble at a young age.”

But I was far from perfect. There were days when I dragged my feet into first-period geometry class, turned my desk around, and talked as if my teacher, Bryan McKenzie, were not there.

“You had genuine interest in the content and never blamed me for issues you had in class. Your behavior was more a consequence of other things and I happened to be the space in which they manifested themselves,” he said. “You were always very confident in what you were doing when you were willing to do it. I tried really hard to be as positive with you and build as much of a relationship with you as I could. I think I did an OK job.”

We had a great relationship outside of class. He wasn’t the only teacher I gave headaches, I’m sure. Everything I was dealing with at home and in my personal life impacted my behavior and how I viewed school, and my grades reflected that.

Once things became more stable, teachers noticed.

“You started to understand the importance of school and being an intellectual and saw both those things as connected,” said Mr. Fleming. “The petty fights over silly things ceased, and you became a very serious student. I think you were the best — or probably, if not the best, one of the best students of 2013.”

The college numbers don’t say everything

I was accepted into many schools. Drew University in Madison, a wooded suburb about 16 miles from Newark, was not where I truly wanted to go, but it’s where I ended up.

“What made Drew a good fit at that point was that it’s a liberal arts school. Being the thinker and type of student you are, it should’ve cultivated that in you, but the environment was not right. It did not give you a chance to get away and reset yourself,” said Harcourt Lucius.

Mr. Lucius was my college placement adviser during my senior year of high school. I saw the inside of his office more than my primary care physician. Complicated family dynamics presented an unexpected curveball, and Drew became the only choice with a viable financial aid package.

“A bigger part of the [puzzle] is parents understanding the family dynamics of financial aid for a first-generation student,” Mr. Lucius told me. “A lot of times, match for a first-gen student is not simply about what is a good fit for the student, but what is a good fit for the family circumstances also.”

After I overcame the financial aid challenges of enrolling in college, I was faced with other hurdles once I arrived at Drew. The campus did not feel very welcoming, and there were difficult issues going on at home.

My financial aid for the second year of college was not the same package that encouraged me to attend. The financial process was always daunting, as I had to go through verification every year, providing the college and the federal government with detailed financial information about my family and seemingly ridiculous requests, like producing a copy of my high school diploma.

I guess it was hard for the government to believe that we were as poor as we indicated. All of these headaches for a school that I knew I should not have been at since the early weeks of freshman year, semester one.

Newark Collegiate was a new charter high school, and college-match counseling was a bit of a dice game. Eight graduating classes later, NCA has more relationships with colleges and data to build smarter lists so students and families can prepare for what’s to come. KIPP Through College (KTC) persistence data are leveraged early in the process during college decision meetings.

“I have a scattergram that shows what the acceptance rate for a specific school has been for an NCA student based on their profile,” said director of college placement Ilyan Nuñez. “Then I go to the persistence team and ask if they are graduating [NCA students] between four to six years. Have there been any incidents to prevent them? What supports have you seen on campus?”

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Ideally, parents, the student, a placement counselor, and a persistence counselor are present to interpret the financial award letter and review additional background before a student makes a decision.

“It’s a great start if a school has an 80 percent estimated college completion rate, but what are our students from NCA experiencing?” Nunez said. “We give that to parents because the numbers from the college don’t say everything.”

Being the bubble girl

I knew early that Drew was not for me, but I was afraid to jeopardize my financial aid. I was aware that first-time incoming freshmen are awarded unique financial opportunities, and frankly, I did not want to endure another stressful financial aid process. I was not presented with any appealing alternatives, and I felt stuck.

As one of a few minorities at a predominantly white institution with fewer than 2,000 students, I struggled with incidents of racism and bouts of self-doubt. Depression, anxiety, and family issues compounded into a petrol bomb. I imploded. I struggled to understand how a university wanted more diversity but made it possible for those students to live and learn in silos, without a real sense of inclusion in classes or campus life in general. Some white students were aware and vocal about our presence, reflecting this undercurrent that somehow we were not there on our own merits.

Drew felt like a bubble, and I was the bubble girl. Trying to protect myself from the outside, but dying on the inside. I suffocated. I went to school wanting to become a doctor, and when I realized that’s not what I wanted, Drew did not have the programs, resources, or opportunities that I realized I did want and need.

“I feel so much shame that I was not able to persist through college like I imagined. I tricked myself into believing that I was not a good student because that was easier to understand than everything I was feeling at the time.”

Sparks of motivation fizzled into despondency before I retreated to my dorm room for days at a time. My professors were frustrated because they saw glimmers of brilliance and knew I could do well. I leaned on the Educational Opportunity Scholars department, a state-funded program that provides financial assistance and support services to low-income college students, but I was trapped in my head, unhealthy, unhappy, and unable to follow through and show up for myself. Showing up for others felt impossible.

“I think you stayed at Drew because you were uncomfortable moving on. You had your challenges with mental health. There were other challenges you were dealing with that you didn’t want to face,” Twannah Ellington, the program’s assistant director, told me.

Kei-Sygh Thomas speaking at the Wells Fargo Sophomore Leaders Conference during her second year in college. (Wells Fargo)

I feel so much shame that I was not able to persist through college like I imagined. I tricked myself into believing that I was not a good student because that was easier to understand than everything I was feeling at the time. I wanted to be the cause of my own demise rather than to feel like negative things happened to me. I reasoned that I did not deserve good things.

Since leaving Drew, I have been seeing a therapist to get through that dark chapter of my life and overcoming other challenges that got in my way. I finally feel like the person that many people always saw: happy, kind, curious, a leader. I know I deserve everything good.

“You sound like you’re in a much better place. You have these great opportunities to do things that are of interest to you, that you bring a voice to because you have a different perspective,” said Ms. Twannah. “And that’s the Kei-Sygh we saw when she walked on campus five years ago.”

Finishing

In fall 2016, Rutgers University–Newark started an amazing program that allows low-income residents to receive scholarships covering 100 percent of tuition and fees. The program allows Rutgers to retain local talent and allows students to pursue university studies without being ball-and-chained to crippling student loan debt. Had I been a high school senior during this time, Rutgers-Newark would be a no-brainer.

I am impressed by Rutgers-Newark’s sense of urgency, commitment to Newark excellence, and being a university of the city, not just within it.

“Rutgers University–Newark is connected to the community, and when I think about you, I think the same thing. You’re very connected to Newark and the things that happen in Newark, especially when it comes to politics and education,” Michael Chavis, my KIPP Through College counselor, said.

I am so close to completing my credits to earn my bachelor’s degree that I can almost smell a crisp graduation cap and feel the fabric tassel glide through my fingers. I want to finish my bachelor’s at Rutgers-Newark and complete the BA/MA dual degree in political science. I am taking steps to make this a reality, but I want to make something clear to myself and others. A college degree is not evidence of my value, curiosity, competence, persistence, or brilliance. I am.

I am grateful for the teachers who saw my resilience and believed in my gifts before I did. Through all the mishaps, twists, and turns, people continue to tell me that I make them proud. I am certain that had I been at a better-fit school, I would have made it through college in four to six years, but I can’t ask time for a redo, and a part of me would not change my experience for the world.

“I knew you were going to college, that was never a question in my mind. I knew that you would be successful because you always had a love of learning, which is rare for someone so young. Especially about the world, about Newark, you had a natural curiosity about things,” Mrs. Martin, my sixth-grade teacher, told me.

“I just always knew that you would be OK and that you would do well if you continued to have the teachers that you had at KIPP and people in your life to continue to push you and make you live up to your potential.”

My only hope is that we match low-income, first-generation college students with their best college match the first time and give them a chance to believe in themselves.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation provide financial support to KIPP and to The 74.

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