When Websterly Jean Louis enrolls at the Community College of Philadelphia this fall, it will mark almost exactly two years since he immigrated from France. And when he talks about his goal of becoming a nurse his smile grows as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.
“That’s my dream,” he says. “I can’t wait. I’m so excited.”
Yanique Walters has never been farther from her Philadelphia home than Kentucky. When she ships out to East Stroudsburg University next semester, it’ll be her first time spending more than a week away from her family.
“It’s gonna be new,” she says with a plucky smirk. “I’m just gonna have to get used to it.”
Among the 200 or so high school students gathered for Know Before You Go, an annual seminar for college-bound seniors, you’ll find just as many stories. The common thread is that all hope to be the first in their families to graduate from college.
For 26 years, the Philadelphia Education Fund has hosted this one-day event, which feels like a cross between a pep rally and a pep talk. The event is designed to help first-generation college students confront some of the stumbling blocks they’re likely to face on campus. There’s talk about securing financial aid and seeking academic help. There’s even a college glossary portion where students learn about foreign terms like “bursar.”
Sprinkled in between are motivational talks, scholarship presentations (complete with giant novelty checks), and raffles where students can win dorm-room goodies like a new printer.
Known Before You Go serves as a festive, year-end capstone to the Philadelphia Education Fund’s College Access Program, a school-based advising initiative that helps usher low-income students to college. Rather than focus on magnet high schools, the College Access Program anchors at schools where college success is far from a given.
Of the six schools participating in this year’s program — Furness High School, Bartram High School, Olney Charter School, Roxborough High School, and Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School — none saw more than half of their graduating students matriculate to college in 2015-16, according to school district data.
In other words, many of the students at Know Before You Go have already beaten the odds just by making it to the doorstep of college. But earning a four-year degree is no given, especially for low-income, first-generation college students.
Beyond the academic hurdles, first-generation students can struggle to advocate for themselves, seek help when needed, or feel comfortable on campuses that likely don’t resemble their hometowns. Mubarak Lawrence, a Ursinus College graduate and one of the seminar’s speakers, told a group of students they’ll have to get used to handling new environments if they want to stick in college.
“It doesn’t look like Philly everywhere,” he said.