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When you're the first to go to college

James Lennox with (clockwise) Raven Gribbins, Joe Saylor and Michael Gribbins. Lennox offered to mentor Raven as she begins her first year of college at Penn State's Greater Allegheny campus, outside Pittsburgh.

Raven Gribbins shows up for her first day at Penn State Greater Allegheny -- outside Pittsburgh -- in shorts and flip-flops, her blondish-brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. It’s not hard to find her dorm. It’s the only one on this campus of 700 students.

“Aw, my name’s on there,” she says as she spots her door.

The room is standard issue. Cinderblock walls. Mini-fridge. And Raven and her dad, Michael Gribbins, are like any father and daughter doing the college dropoff thing. They bicker over where to put the TV and how to make the bed. Only this is totally new for the Gribbins family; Raven’s parents and grandparents didn’t finish high school.

The Gribbins brought support. Raven’s high school basketball coach Joe Saylor, a family friend, comes to her defense.

“She’s not in the Navy,” he says about the bed. “That’s probably the best it’s going to look for a long time.”

You can feel the worry in the room. A few years ago, college was a distant possibility for Raven. She grew up in poverty, in Cincinnati’s Lower Price Hill. She wasn’t much of a student and got in a lot of fights. Her grandmother mostly raised her while Raven’s parents battled drug and alcohol addiction. Her father has since turned his life around. And, in her last couple years of high school, so did Raven.

“Everybody used to tell me all the time, like, ‘you’re not going to make it through high school, you’re going to have a baby by 16,’” she says. “I’m glad to prove all them wrong.”

She won’t be alone here. About half her classmates at Greater Allegheny are also first-generation college students. That compares to about a third of undergraduates nationally. Colleges are grappling with how to help these students succeed. First-generation students are less likely to graduate on time, because they have to hold down jobs to cover their tuition or they’re not prepared for college-level work. Raven says she only read a few books in her English class last year.

“I’m not scared of how the classes are going to be because I know they’re going to be hard,” she says. “I’m not going to be afraid to ask questions and get help, neither.”

Raven already has  more help than most. Her tuition, room and board, and books are all paid for with grants and scholarships -- thanks partly to an anonymous Penn State alum who heard her story on Marketplace last spring. She’s also got a mentor -- another listener who wanted to help. After she settles into her dorm room, Raven and her dad and coach drive to the student center to meet him.

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James Lennox is a philosophy professor at the University of Pittsburgh, close by. They pick up some food from Wendy’s and drive over to a picnic area on the Youghiogheny River to talk. Lennox starts right off with a tip. Introduce yourself to professors, he tells her. And ask questions. “If you don’t understand something, shoot the hand up.”

Her dad jumps in. He’s worried about being so far away.

“She’s 18 years old and I have to make her do her homework,” he says. “I can’t be there to get on her.”

“No, I’m going to do it,” Raven says.

There’s other help at school if she wants it. Greater Allegheny has a federally-funded support program for first-generation and low-income students.

“Indeed, if one were to go back four or five decades, I too, was a first generation student at this campus,” says the school’s chancellor Curtiss Porter.

As an athlete on the volleyball team, Raven will have to spend at least six hours a week studying in a supervised program at the library. But ultimately, Porter says, it will come down to her.

“I think there’s a pivotal moment, one that all students who are successful get to,” he says, “where the student begins to realize that this is their education.” No one will make Raven go to class, he says. "I think the common aha moment is, 'whoa, this is on me.'"

Before Raven is on her own, Coach Saylor gives her one last pep talk.

 “There’s going to be times you’re sitting there and it seems like everybody else knows exactly what they’re talking about and you’re going to feel like maybe you don’t have a clue,” he says. “You've just got to dig in -- show them what you’re made of.”

Raven hugs her dad and waves as they drive away.

A week later, she has her very first college class -- English 001. It’s a remedial class, designed to prepare students for college-level reading and writing.

Raven sits in front, and afterward she goes right up and introduces herself.

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.
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