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Moving the American Dream into focus: 3 insights and a call to action

Caecilia Gotama, P.E., LEED AP BD+C


Mar 26, 2021

A stark irony to the year “2020” was the degree to which we recognized how out-of-focus many of our society’s systems had become and the importance of mobilizing to make things better.

The current-state challenge of students who are working to become the first in their family to earn a college degree deserves such a call to action: through a societal consensus, we need to make real our commitment to diversity and inclusion and create educational equity in access, opportunity, and quality.

To set proper context, study of first-generation (FG) students continues to build but significant work has emerged around the cultural mismatch theory tested in 2012 (“Unseen Disadvantage: How American Universities’ Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students,” Nicole Stephens, et al).

Stephens and her colleagues used four studies to test different aspects of the theory which purports “first-generation students underperform because interdependent norms from their mostly working-class backgrounds constitute a mismatch with middle-class independent norms prevalent in universities.”

In terms of the psychological realities in play with an FG student, it’s interesting to note that research into FG students who pursue graduate school (FGGS) in fields of Psychology appear to experience the same mismatch, amplified: “Notably, the impact of cultural mismatch at the graduate level extends beyond academic performance, into the student’s psychological well-being and experience of self and others” (King, A.C., 2017, “Where do we fit? Challenges faced by first-generation graduate students in professional psychology”).

As director of the nonprofit 501(c)3 organization BRDG - bridge to connect, I lead an organization whose leadership, volunteers, and mission are keenly focused on providing support for FG students in areas where the challenges of cultural mismatch can be addressed: mentoring, socialization, and life skills development. We deploy these “wrap-wound” supports using proprietary curricula that’s informed by leading-edge educational and psychological research that is intended to provide uniquely personalized support.

In year three, our organizational empirical knowledge has led to key insights to help direct the success of FG students.

Insight #1: Within cultural minorities, success can be psychologically threatening to one and all

Only recently I learned that the drive for “our children to be better than the parents” is not a universal goal and that getting out of disadvantaged situation demands more hard work: it requires a fortitude of spirit to navigate conflicts between the pull of family and cultural connection and a life open to fulfilling dreams.

In her February 10, 2017 article, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development states, “A student’s decision to pursue higher education comes with the price of leaving their family behind. Students may feel they’re abandoning parents or siblings who depend on them. And families too may have conflicted feelings: first-generation college students’ desire for education and upward mobility may be viewed as a rejection of their past.”

Creating opportunities for the targeted FG alone is inadequate: opportunities and support need to engage support systems of family and other networks so that the breaking of norms is positively embraced or, at a minimum, accepted. And it’s incumbent upon those who have succeeded to share their story with those wishing to follow.

Insight #2: Gaps in knowledge and know-how become potholes on the road to success

By definition, “First Generation” students lack parents, aunts and/or uncles who can guide them in making the best choices while in college. Generally, these students choose practical options to accommodate their family situation and often to the detriment of developing their career. This may mean taking a minimum wage summer job as a house painter versus a 10 week internship in their field of study because the stipend cannot help the family’s financial resources. The cumulative effect of these decisions frequently results in a first job offer that averages $20,000 -- 25% less than the average!

Melissa, one of our successful students, is a first-generation Computer Engineering student who joined BRDG bridge-to-connect in her junior year. She lacked a “college know how” support system and also had to overcome “so you want to be better than us” social pressure from her childhood friends and extended family members. Now, a graduate of our program, Melissa is a System Analyst at Fortune 500 company with an above average salary and an achievable earnings potential beyond what she could dream in her youth.

Insight #3: Diversity and inclusion will shape America to be its best

After an internship experience at an architectural firm, Melissa wrote:  “In the world of technology, the synergy created by staff with a variety of past life experiences generates unique, advanced and potentially untried or unfamiliar designs and concepts for analysis.”

From a corporate point of view, internship evaluated by itself can appear to be just an opportunity to screen and select the best students for future hire. But, to an FG, an internship is an opportunity to level the playing field by opening their perspective from being family and community-centric to include an awareness of social and economic value and even an appreciation for corporate ROI.

Of course, there is no singular solution to setting America on a path to educational equity, however I have seen programs like the one I oversee -- focused and individualized counseling and mentoring blended with sound curricula and a professional internship -- greatly impact what’s possible for FG students requiring an investment of only 18 months and $10,000.

It’s a formula for ROI that invites government, corporations, and private-public partnerships to step-up and lean in to answer with support.

And I believe the results will do far more than restore and preserve the greatness of the American economic engine: FG leaders in science and technology can lead the way to a future of greater innovation and impact while growing the equity we desire to celebrate and share as a community.

Caecilia Gotama is the founder and chief executive of Bridge to Connect (BRDG), a nonprofit based in Orange County, CA, focused on helping first-generation college students pursuing career opportunities in STEM. She is a licensed Mechanical Engineer and Fellow of American Society of Mechanical Engineers and is retired from owning and operating a successful engineering company. She holds Bachelor and Master Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from California State University, Fullerton, and a Master in Business Administration from the Graziadio School at Pepperdine University. She is a LEED accredited professional with a passion for engineering sustainability in science, technology and society.

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