Navigating the many firsts of freshman year

Raven Gribbins is the first in her family to graduate from high school and go to college. She's now in her second semester at Penn State Greater Allegheny, near Pittsburgh.

Raven gets tutoring from math instructor Justin Guadagni, as part of a federally-funded program for low-income and first-generation college students.

Raven Gribbins sits in trigonometry class, right in the front row, her cell phone buzzing on her desk. As the instructor takes attendance, Raven snaps a quick selfie and sends it off to a guy she’s been texting.

Then she gets down to business.

"For the angle 330 degrees – first of all, what quadrant does that lie in?" the instructor asks the class.

"The fourth," Raven answers.

"And what is the reference angle?"

"It’s 30," Raven says quietly.

Raven, who is studying to be a high school math teacher, has been here before. She took this class last semester. It didn’t go so well. One of the first lessons of college: It’s not high school.

"It’s a lot more homework, a lot more studying and a lot more effort," she says. "It was kind of a shock."

A lot about coming to college was a shock. Raven grew up in a poor and dangerous neighborhood in Cincinnati, called Lower Price Hill. Neither of her parents finished high school. Both struggled with drug addiction.

Raven has just started her second semester at Penn State Greater Allegheny, a small campus near Pittsburgh. This is usually the time when things get real, says Siobhan Brooks, coordinator of the Learning Center, where students like Raven get tutoring and other support services.

"I think that is the wake up time for most," Brooks says. "The first semester is often trial and error, because they’re still trying to figure out how this works. ‘Do I really need to be in every class or can I miss a few and still get it?'"

By the second semester, she says, they catch on.

Raven has tried a lot. She played volleyball. (Her team made it to the playoffs.) She got a new boyfriend. (They broke up.) She got her tongue pierced – something she’s wanted to do for years.

"I couldn’t eat for three days," she says.

And she went through two roommates.

"I don’t get along with females, for real, so I knew I was going to end up with a single by the end of the semester," Raven says.

The price of all that trial and error: a 2.5 grade point average. To get her education degree, she hopes to transfer to the main Penn State campus in State College after her sophomore year. To do that, she’ll need at least a 3.0 GPA.

So Raven has a plan. At the end of a long day of classes, she meets with one of two math tutors she’s been assigned, Justin Guadagni.

"Any specific questions on the ones we went over in class?" he asks as she sits down.

"No," she says.

The tutoring is part of a federally-funded program for first-generation and low-income students. Raven will also take a class on study skills, like how to read textbooks and take notes.

She has a lot of people watching over her. One of them is her volleyball coach, Tracy Gibbs, who meets with Raven every week for study hours.

"I know her dad in high school, when she lived with him, was always on her about homework," Gibbs says. "As it turns out, you know, she needs the same thing still. She needs someone to be the annoying, nagging person to say ‘Did you do x, y and z?’"

But Gibbs says Raven is thriving in other ways.

"She’s always responsible, she’s always on time, she’s always respectful," Gibbs says. “I don’t think I’ve ever even seen her angry."

That might surprise some of her high school teachers. Raven used to get in fights and mouth off in class. But while she was back home in Cincinnati for winter break, she says people noticed a change.

"They say I’m getting brighter and, like, more educated," she says. They told her she was turning into "a nice young lady," she says.

Raven says she didn’t want to come back to college after the break. She misses her dad and her little sister. According to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, low-income, first-generation college students are far more likely to drop out after the first year than better-off students whose parents went to college. They may be less prepared academically. Many have financial pressures. Or the pull of home is too strong.

"In my case, it was easier for me not to go home," says Teresa Heinz Housel, who was the first in her family to go to college and has since co-edited two books about the first-generation experience.

Breaks can be especially hard, Housel says.

"I have memories of being in a near-empty campus dorm because I chose to stay on campus," she says. "It was just easier for me to do that than to go through the anxiety of trying to get used to a different cultural environment and then coming back."

But Raven did come back. She says dropping out is not an option.

"This is a good opportunity for me," she says. "I’m doing it to better my education so when I get older, I can take care of [my sister] if she needs my help."

And what she’s left behind has also given Raven an edge. For her "Issues in American Education" class, she gets an assignment:  to respond to a passage about the effect of poverty on schools.

There is a “social burden placed on schools by poverty, drug abuse, violence, and hopelessness,” writes Nan Stone in the Harvard Business Review. “Troubled children carry the ills of their homes and neighborhoods into their classrooms every day.”

Poverty, drug abuse, violence and hopelessness. Sounds a lot like Raven’s old neighborhood.

"Yes, it does," Raven says. "I could relate to it because it happened when I was a child, when I was growing up."

The instructor, Anthony Mitchell, says Raven’s experience will help make her a good teacher.

"I’m very happy to have a student that brings her background and brings her perspective," he says. "Many students in this class have not had an experience like Raven."

"It makes me feel stronger," Raven says. "I had to work my way to get here."

She’s quickly learning she’ll have to work just as hard to stay.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

Raven gets tutoring from math instructor Justin Guadagni, as part of a federally-funded program for low-income and first-generation college students.

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