Things May Fall Apart but You Will Make it Through with a Little Help from your Family, Friends, Teachers, and School

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 1.57.39 PMWe are pleased to feature this thoughtful essay about first generation college students from Professor Margarita Azmitia. Dr. Azmitia grew up in Guatemala and is a Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She studies how family, peer, schools, and communities contour adolescents and young adults educational and identity pathways, adolescents’ friendships, and collaborative problem solving.  

by Margarita Azmitia

From the Society for Research on Adolescence newsletter

The transitions from childhood to adolescence and then from elementary to middle and high school and into college can be challenging for all youth.  However, they can be especially difficult for youth from low income, ethnic minority, or immigrant families.  As they transition to middle school, high school, and college, these youth often begin to exceed their parents’ level of schooling, thus making it necessary for them to rely on peers, teachers, and community mentors for help with school work and education/career goals  (Azmitia & Cooper, 2011; Cooper, 2011; Dennis, Phinney, & Chuateco, 2005).  In some cases, youths’ academic and career goals may be in conflict with the needs of their families and friends.  For example, families of college-bound youth may pressure them to attend a college close to home so they can continue to help the family economically, provide childcare, or serve as English translators (Chao, 2006; Grau, Azmitia, & Quatelbaum, 2008; Orellana, 2009; Syed, Azmitia, & Cooper, 2011).  Also, while their less-academically oriented friends often provide encouragement and support, over time higher achieving, low income, ethnic minority, or first generation students can feel alienated from their friends and peers. Because they also often feel they have little in common with their high achieving middle/upper income ethnic majority peers, these youth can feel that they do not belong at school, home, or in their community (Azmitia & Radmacher, 2012; Azmitia, Syed, & Radmacher, in press; Johnson, Solbe, & Leonard, 2007; Orbe 2008; Ostrove & Long, 2009).

Increasingly, theory, research, and policy have been focused on the educational pathways of first generation of college students (Azmitia et al., in press, 2008; Cooper, 2011; Fuligni & Pereira, 2008; Gándara, 1995, 2006; Grau et al., 2008; Padilla, 2008).   An important lesson from this research is that it is not sufficient to focus attention on college admissions. The high rates of academic difficulties and school dropout, particularly in 4-year universities, suggest that it is equally important, and perhaps more important, to help students enroll in courses needed for their majors, understand and navigate college life, and persist towards graduation (Azmitia et al., in press; Dennis et al., 2005; Pinel, Warner, & Chua, 2005; Seidman, 2005; Syed, Azmitia, & Cooper, 2011).  Academic advising is especially important for low income, ethnic minority, and immigrant youth enrolled in community colleges. Many of these students take courses that do not transfer to four year universities, an error that lowers the probability they will complete their AA degrees and transfer to four-year colleges and universities (Bunch & Endris, in press; Fry, 2008).  Because many good jobs require a college degree, the under representation of low income, ethnic minority, and immigrant students in universities and college graduation statistics has important implications for youth’s occupational attainment as well as the larger U.S. economy which increasingly relies on a diverse, well educated, work force (Cooper, 2011; Gándara, 2006; Gills, Schmukler, Azmitia, & Crosby, 2006; Syed et al., 2011).

Researchers, educational practitioners, policy makers, and government officials have raised alarm about the lack of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in higher education and professional fields, and federal and state governments have funded research, professional conferences, and interventions aimed at increasing diversity in higher education, and especially Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math (STEM) majors, and professional occupations.  This lack of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity is not only a problem in the U.S., but is also a world-wide issue prioritized by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, included in keynote addresses of professional conferences, debated in state and federal governments, and the focus of ongoing collaborations between scholars and nations aiming to help refugees and immigrants make it in their new countries.

My research group and I have been working to address this challenge at the local level:  We aim to help low-income, ethnic minority, immigrant children, youth, and families in Central California and the Bay Area stay on the “good path of life,” succeed in school, and either make it to college or learn a trade or skill that will allow them to support themselves and their families and break the cycle of poverty. With my long-term collaborator Catherine R. Cooper and a large group of undergraduate and graduate student collaborators, we spent the last two decades visiting and interviewing migrant and low-income Latino and European American families in the central coast, carried out longitudinal studies of the transition from elementary school to middle school, and studied successful youth-oriented community organizations and academic outreach programs in the Central Coast and Bay Area of California (Azmitia & Cooper, 2001; Azmitia, Cooper, & Brown, 2011; Cooper, 2011).  In the last decade, my undergraduate and doctoral student collaborators—Joel Gills, Kimberly Radmacher, Grace Sumabat-Estrada, Moin Syed, and Virginia Thomas—and I have been studying the transition into and out of college for students who are the first in their families to go to college, currently about 40% of the students at our university. In what follows, I propose 6 strategies for supporting middle school, high school, and college students’ educational and career pathways and well-being.

1. Do not underestimate the role of the family.  High achieving adolescents and young adults view their parents and siblings as the most important reason for their academic success, and even when their English and educational attainment is limited, parents often recruit older siblings, teachers, and religious and community mentors to help with homework and career planning (Azmitia, Cooper, & Brown, 2010; Cooper, 2011).  However, strong family ties and obligations can be a liability when youth accepted into prestigious colleges choose to attend colleges closer to home or less prestigious colleges that the children of family friends have attended because they do not understand the career and social network implications of attending a prestigious university.  Therefore, it is important for schools and universities to provide comfortable settings for families and students to learn about educational and career planning.  Successful school and community programs that support children, youth, and parents’ educational aspirations and goals include a family education component that is delivered in the families’ home language and have school staff who speaks the families’ home language and makes an effort—such as providing childcare and scheduling events after work—so all families can attend parent-teacher meetings and events (Cooper, 2011).

2.  Friends and peers can be important educational allies and sources of support.  For many adolescents and young adults, friends and peers take priority over academics.  Thus, parents and teachers often see peers as having a bad influence on academic achievement. Contrary to this view, our research has shown that academically successful adolescents and young adults cite friends as a key source of emotional and academic support, and even those whose friends are not good students credit those friends as acting as cheerleaders for their high educational performance and aspirations (Azmitia & Cooper, 2001; Cooper, 2011).  Middle school and high school parents and educational practitioners can help students by providing well-designed structured opportunities for students to work together on homework and educational and career planning during and after school.  Successful peer work groups require that youth learn how to work together, resolve conflicts, learn how to present their views and listen to others’ perspectives (Azmitia, 1996; Azmitia & Crowley, 2000; Rogoff, 2006).  These are the same collaborative skills that are needed in college and work. Universities that teach these collaborative skills ensure that their students not only succeed in college, but also in their careers (Cook, Teasley, & Ackerman, 2009; Dunbar & Fugelsan, 2005)

3.  Provide school or community mentors for adolescents and young adults.  In our longitudinal studies of students’ pathways to and through college, participants consistently named a teacher, school counselor, academic outreach program staff member, athletic coach, or community mentor who had provided emotional and academic support during middle school or high school and encouraged them to persist in school and go to college. Many students had not thought about going to college until one of these mentors suggested it. In some cases, mentors convinced parents to allow their children to participate in academic activities and clubs at school or to attend college away from their home communities.  Yet, when we interviewed college seniors at our university, fewer than 15% indicated that they had found a mentor in college, a finding that we recently replicated in a study that focuses exclusively on students who are the first in their families to attend college (Azmitia et al., in preparation). These mentors seldom shared the students’ ethnicity or gender, although it was important that, in the case of teachers and academic outreach mentors, they either spoke their mentees language (if not English) or seemed open to meet with parents and other family members to advocate for the mentee,  explain application and financial materials, the advantages and disadvantages of pursuing college preparatory work and, if the student was admitted to several colleges, the advantages of attending more prestigious institutions.   The percent of students who had a mentor was even lower in STEM fields, and many students had changed their majors to Social Sciences or Humanities in hopes of finding a mentor or at least, pursue a degree in a personally relevant area. For example, students moved from Biology to Sociology or Psychology because they found the coursework more personally relevant, the faculty, graduate students, and peers more sensitive to their gender, ethnic/cultural, or social class background, and the less-demanding coursework allowed them to participate in service activities in the community or at the university (Syed et al., 2011). When we shared this finding with Michele Handy, the then director of the Educational Opportunities Program (a U.S. Department of Education program that is aimed at helping students who are the first in their families to attend college) at our university, she and her staff developed a mentoring program that brought together campus organizations that already had effective mentoring strategies, such as STARS, which focuses on transfer and older, returning students, El Centro, which serves Latinos, ABSA, the African Black Student Alliance, and Learning Support Services, which provides academic tutoring and support to reach out to students. Currently, first generation college students at our university are often formally paired with more advanced peers who initiate contact and these organizations routinely hold social events where students can meet faculty, staff, and fellow students in their proposed majors. Participants in the programs, mentors and mentees, evaluate them highly and many students who benefited from mentoring in their first and second years often become mentors to entering students. It is very important for the mentors to initiate contact with their mentees, who are often overwhelmed with their coursework or other adjustment challenges.   In our psychology department, the undergraduate mentoring program for Latino students, Sociedad Estudiantíl de Estudiantes Avanzando (Student Society for Advancement), S.E.P.A., founded by doctoral students, is a vibrant, exciting group that was recently awarded one of the coveted Chancellor’s Diversity Awards. Pairing entering students with formal or informal mentors is a low-cost but high pay off strategy for adolescents and young adults in middle school, high school, and college.

4.  Provide opportunities for adolescents and young adults to find their niche.    Many adolescents and young adults, but especially those from low income, ethnic minority, immigrant families with low levels of schooling, struggle to fit in at school or college (Azmitia et al., in press; Gills et al., 2008; Orbe, 2008; Ostrove & Long, 2007). Promoting student organizations and service opportunities at school or in the community can provide opportunities for students to work towards a common cause and develop the skills that they need to adjust and persist in school and find their purpose in life (Damon, 2008).  Most of the first generation college students we have studied were actively engaged in service activities before coming to college, so making these activities easy to access and participate in helps them adjust to college.  At our university, for example, the Campus Connection provides transportation to students who want to volunteer their services in local low-income communities and schools. Also, several colleges have service requirements, and our department has an award-winning field study in which junior and senior undergraduate students spend two academic quarters working10 hours a week in community organizations, industries, or schools and 5 hours per week with their university faculty supervisor, who helps them integrate their classwork with their observations and experiences at their community internship. The internships are professional development opportunities that give students a glimpse into the everyday tasks of their intended careers. Because many first generation students want to “give back” to their communities, these volunteer or formal internship opportunities play a key role in retention. 

However, it is important that adolescents and young adults remember that school is their priority. I have often counseled struggling students to cut down on their service commitments so they can focus on their classwork, and middle school and high school teachers have commented that they face similar difficulties with their students.  I suspect that for these adolescents and young adults, service activities provide an important source of satisfaction, self-efficacy, and ‘mattering in the world’ that they do not get from their academic work.  For some, their academic work is challenging or not as enjoyable as these more social activities. Finally, a small group of these students is experiencing academic burnout or is unsure about their career future, so is either in career moratorium or perhaps, career avoidance. Learning to balance work, service, and fun are key skills for succeeding in school and life.

5.  Get to know your students and, if they fail, give them a second chance.   Schools, universities, and communities are often under-resourced and have difficulties accommodating the needs of individual students.  Too often, we rely on adolescents and young adults to take the initiative to seek help.  Yet low-income, ethnic minority, or immigrant youth often hesitate to seek help from teachers and staff because they fear being labeled as a low income, ethnic minority, needy student who fits societal stereotypes of underachievement.  Moreover, because parent involvement in their children’s schooling drops dramatically after the transition to middle school, parents are often unaware of their children’s academic difficulties. Similarly, teachers are often unaware of family circumstances, such as illness, loss of employment, and for undocumented immigrants, threats of deportation, that can have a profound effect on students’ ability to focus on academics. Some college students cannot focus on school work because they are struggling financially and are unable to pay rent (so are homeless and staying with friends) or to buy enough food to sustain them. In general, college students are also notorious for not seeking help, as witnessed by low attendance to office hours by all students, not just those from underrepresented backgrounds. 

When we take the time to find out about our students’ lives and have the compassion to make accommodations that will allow them to complete the work, they flourish.  Many of us have succeeded in life because someone gave us a second chance, and it is time to pay this kindness forward. Over my many years of teaching, I have found that asking low-achieving students to come see me by making an announcement in class or writing a note on their papers or tests is not very successful.  Email is a key tool in reaching out to students because it allows me to personalize the message and begin a conversation that does not require students to, at least initially, come to see me to have an in-person conversation about their academic difficulties.  Many middle schools and high schools also encourage students to email their teachers, and thus, by being more available to our students, we can help them develop initiative and communication skills while providing the help they need. 

6.  White and Asian-heritage (i.e., youth from college going families or the ‘model minority’) students also need support.  Despite the stereotypes, a large percent of students who perform poorly academically are from groups that have traditionally experienced success in school. Belonging, emotional support, and family, friend, and life challenges are as important to these youth as they are to their low income, ethnic minority or immigrant counterparts. Some academically successful adolescents and young adults can experience extreme family, peer, and school pressures to succeed. Having no “safe space” to unwind can leave students vulnerable to mental health difficulties and failure in school (Azmitia et al., in press; Cooper, 2011).  As exemplified by Richard Corey in the famous poem by Robinson, some adolescents and young adults who seemingly have everything going for them and appear happy can surprise us with their level of despair, and in some unfortunate occasions, much like Richard Corey, develop life-threatening stress-related physical and psychological problems and take their own lives.  Developing systems of support for all adolescents and young adults, regardless of their family background and personal characteristics, is essential for their academic and personal development and the future of our communities. These support systems have to be sensitive to students’ cultural socialization.  For example, shame may play an important role in Asian-heritage students’ failure to seek help, and European-heritage students working through issues of privilege may conceal their distress from family, friends, and professors.  Discussions led by more advanced peers or graduate students, teachers and school/college counselors, advisors, and dorm resident assistants can help adolescents and young adults realize that they are not unique or alone in their worries, provide emotional and academic support, and if necessary, help students receive counseling and mental health services at school or the university.


As the focus for increasing diversity in higher education and professional occupations shifts from diversifying admissions to ensuring that diverse students persist and graduate, schools, universities, and work places not only need to get to know their students and the factors that promote success and persistence but also identify the causes of distress, difficulties, and dropout.  In this essay, I proposed six strategies to increase retention and begin a conversation about diversity and equity in education.  I have purposely said little about economic challenges, as these alone would require a feature article; many low income, ethnic minority, or immigrant youth do not go to college or if they do, drop out because they cannot afford tuition, living expenses, or mounting debt.  Distressingly, given differences in financial aid packages, it is currently more expensive for students to attend the University of California, my home institution, than Ivy League, private colleges with large endowments. We can build all the support systems in the world, but if low income, ethnic minority, or immigrant college students are working full time jobs or commuting from far away to attend our schools and universities, they will not have time to make use of the resources and supports we offer.  Getting to know our youth is crucial for helping them persist in school, graduate, improve their lives, and become productive members of their families, communities, and nations.

Margarita Azmitia grew up in Guatemala and is a Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She studies how family, peer, schools, and communities contour adolescents and young adults educational and identity pathways, adolescents’ friendships, and collaborative problem solving.  She has two pre-adolescent daughters, loves soccer, and a good novel. Please contact her with comments or questions about this essay at