Supporting 1st Generation College Students

We work hard to help our students build their academic skills and develop the content knowledge they need to earn their HSE diplomas, but there are many other factors that can make or break our students as they attempt to successfully cross the divide into college coursework and degrees. For graduating high school seniors who are the first in their families to go to college, being successful in college can be extremely difficult because of academic, social and financial pressures. For adult students, after they struggle to get their high school equivalency diploma, a college degree can seem impossible. It is important that they see people like themselves struggle and pick themselves up as they work through college. Our students need to see resilience at work and prepare themselves for some of the same challenges.

All the Difference, a new film in the PBS’ POV series, is a welcome new resource for teachers and students. The film tells the story of two young African-American men from the South Side of Chicago as they go to college, struggle in different ways and eventually succeed, graduating and moving on to other opportunities. My guess is that our students will find something to identify with in these young men’s stories, whether it is their desire to make their families proud, their periods of self-doubt or their strong desire for success.

The film’s web site provides additional tools for students, professionals and families:

For Students: An interactive College Bound Students Handbook introduced by Wes Moore and intended for first-generation students to use in their college prep and through their college careers. The handbook includes embedded video clips from the documentary and interactive scoring of the student’s progress towards being college-ready. I can imagine the handbook being used through a semester in an HSE or college transition class, with students returning to the handbook for guidance as they make explore college selection, financial aid packages, time management, networking, academic majors and stumbling blocks.

While reading the handbook, students view video clips illustrating challenging situations in college. In this example, Robert talks about how his support networks have helped him be resilient and push past his self-perceived limits:


For Educators: An online, interactive Facilitator’s Guide written by Marcia Young Cantarella, Ph.D. , co-director of the CUNY Black Male Initiative, offers strategies and activities to use the film to start conversations with students and help them prepare for their college careers. The Facilitator’s Guide includes discussion questions, conversation starters, suggested activities and homework, and information about career paths and related majors.

Here are a few examples of conversation starters from the guide:

1. During the film, you learned a lot about Robert Henderson and Krishaun Branch. From the beginning, you heard their commitments to changing their lives for themselves and their families. Did you think Krishaun and Robert would graduate from college – and why? Which youth (if either) seems more like you? In what way? If this were your story, what would you want viewers to know about you and some of the life changes you have decided to make?


11. At one point in the film Robert said, “Put your pride to the side and seek out help. If you don’t know it, you need to ask. If you don’t ask, you’re never going to know it.” At Fisk, we heard Krishaun telling his adviser, Dr. Sheila Peters, “I tried to do things myself instead of bringing other people into it.” He said he wanted to feel like he had accomplished something on his own. Whose advice, Robert’s or Krishaun’s, would offer greater help if you were in trouble academically in college? Why? How comfortable are you asking for help? What might hold you back from seeking help?

For Families of Students: The Facilitator’s Guide has an open letter to families that serves as an introduction to the handbook for the families of students who are going on college. The web site also includes Family Tip sheets (10 tips specifically for families of 1st generation college students).

The film is premiering on PBS on September 12th, 2016 and will stream for free for one month. For three years, schools and other organizations can borrow a screening DVD by joining POV’s Community Network.

We hope you will watch the premiere and then return to CollectEdNY to share ideas about how we can use these tools to support students on their way to college.




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About Eric Appleton

Eric lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn with his wife Nancy and a poodle mix named Nina. He rides a bike to clear his head, but also enjoys long subway rides scribbling numbers in a notebook. Eric has worked in adult ed since '99. He is a founding member of the NYC Community of Adult Math Instructors (CAMI).

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