Are you a first-gen student? It depends who you ask.

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Photo Credit: Samantha Dorisca | Daily Texan Staff

This is the second installment of the semester-long collaborative series “First-Gen UT,” which will share the stories of first-generation Longhorns. Stories will be produced in partnership with UT’s chapters of Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Hispanic Journalists Association and the National Lesbian Gay Journalists Association. 

Every day from 10 a.m. until 9:30 p.m., math senior Benjamin Duong’s parents work at their family restaurant called Kemah Cafe. Born and raised in Clear Lake, Texas, Duong spent his childhood helping out at the restaurant by taking orders, cleaning tables and making coffee or lemonade when needed.

Since his parents work long hours, Duong said he had to figure out how to complete his college applications and financial aid documents with only the help of his older sisters. Neither of Duong’s parents attended college, making him a first-generation college student. However, Duong said he didn’t even know he qualified as a first-generation student, because his sisters had both gone to college. 

“I don’t think I was recognizable as a first-generation to myself or to other people,” Duong said. 

Business sophomore Lucy Gutierrez also researched the college application process without her parents because they were unfamiliar with the U.S. college system as Mexican immigrants.

“It was something I researched, I applied to, I financed and I decided to move (to Austin),” Gutierrez said. “They drove me up here … but they were not able to be very involved in the application process and enrollment.”

But according to the U.S. Department of Education, Gutierrez is not a first-generation college student because her mom graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Mexico. 

The definition of a “first-generation student” can be vague and unclear, leaving students like Duong and Gutierrez confused.

Who is a first-generation student? 

Duong and Gutierrez’s similar, but different, experiences are part of the ongoing debate over what the term “first-generation student” means.

UT officials define first-generation students as those with parents “who have not earned a higher education degree from a U.S. institution.” 

But at the federal level, this is not the case. 

According to the U.S. Department of Education, a first-generation student is someone whose parents haven’t obtained a bachelor’s degree or someone whose primary guardian didn’t obtain a bachelor’s degree. The term also extends to people with parent(s) and or guardian(s) who attended college, but failed to receive a bachelor’s degree.

Joey Williams, communications director for the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost Office, said the federal definition of first-generation is not influenced by country of origin, so students whose parents have earned a degree in another country may not be eligible for first-generation scholarships.

This leaves students like Gutierrez, whose mom earned a bachelor’s in business administration in Mexico, with less resources, even if they face similar bureaucratic or cultural obstacles as federally qualified first-generation students.

“Sometimes I feel at a slight disadvantage being an immigrant, because that means my parents don’t have roots here, so I don’t have the connections that maybe some other people do,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez said her mom has not been able to use her Mexican degree to advance her professional career in the U.S., so her mom currently works in a nursing home.

It’s been over a decade since her family moved from Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas, but Gutierrez said her mom still struggles with speaking English. Language barriers like these also make it difficult for students like Gutierrez to receive parental help when applying to college. 

But students like Duong, who the U.S. Department of Education does consider a first-generation student, can also miss out on resources because of the confusion over the term. 

“I missed my chance to do the first-generation scholarship, because I didn’t consider myself as a first-generation student,” Duong said. “I’m not really sure what people defined it as because I know there’s multiple definitions.”

Duong said he only learned he qualified as a first-generation student after talking with his girlfriend’s mom at the end of his sophomore year. He was disappointed that he missed the chance to apply for UT’s first-generation scholarship.

More than a definition

First-generation students who qualify under the federal definition are encouraged to apply to UT’s First Abroad Planning Scholarship and are welcomed to take part in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement First-Generation Student Ambassador Program, said Kendall Slagle, a spokesperson for the Provost office. 

The ambassador program connects first-generation students and is part of a first-generation committee started by Alejandrina Guzman, a UT alumna and first-generation student.

Cassandre Alvarado, director of UT’s Student Success Initiatives office, co-chairs UT’s new working group on first-generation students. She said the University is moving to be more inclusive and allow self-identifying first-generation students to access resources on campus.

“The technical definition is not what’s important,” Alvarado said. “What’s important is whether (a) student feels that they need support that might be aligned with an identity as a first-gen student.”

These resources include participating in the Multicultural Engagement Center, the Office of the Dean of Students and the Counseling and Mental Health Center, Slagle said. 

Gutierrez said she self-identifies as a first-generation student, but understands why the federal government might restrict some resources to students whose parents did not earn any degree.

She said she found scholarships for Hispanic students and found a supportive community by joining university organizations and by meeting other Hispanic students through her classes. 

“Being at UT, I think the resources are great,” Gutierrez said. “I think the reason I’m here is because they made it easy for me to come here.”

Duong said these conversations about who is considered a first-generation student should happen earlier in high school. 

“College is a very mysterious thing that schools push, but, in my experience, I know that they don’t talk about the ins and outs of it,” Duong said. “It’s not very clear what first-generation means and what resources they have.”