First-generation college student Vincent Gay started his journey on a wrestling scholarship at Edinboro University, near Erie, Pennsylvania. Early on, he got into such difficulty he started looking to transfer. But going back to Ohio would have been “a sign of failure,” he recalls. He looked hard for a better-fitting college elsewhere in Pennsylvania. “I was in my dorm room in the middle of the night on dial-up Internet, looking for schools that take transfers,” Gay recalls. He found 10 that met his criteria. “Temple accepted me but gave me no aid.” He was so desperate to stay far from home he planned to go to Montclair State in New Jersey, where the college gave him aid but his Ohio state grant for low-income college students wouldn’t transfer. Then, a miracle happened. “I got a financial aid package in July out of nowhere. They gave me a ton of money.” Gay thought, “I’ll go there.” He went to Temple, majored in education, and graduated in 2003. Since then, he has been giving back to other first-generation students like himself in a variety of roles: teacher, leader in after-school programming, and now principal of Baker College Prep, a Noble Network of Charter Schools campus in South Chicago. Previously, he served as an assistant principal at UIC College Prep. Through these experiences, Gay has supported hundreds of high school students to launch their journeys as the first in their families to go to college. In addition to serving as Baker’s principal, Gay leads an advisory group and teaches literature two periods a day to the juniors struggling most with reading. He worked with teachers to create a special literature course just for them. And if they don’t show academic growth, he’ll be the one responsible. “If we’re going to have bad results,” he says, “I want my name on them.” I had the chance to sit down with Gay and ask him about being a first-generation college student and how he's helping his students to do the same.
Why teaching? As a first-generation college kid, I was dead set on having a job at the end of it. No philosophy major for me! I played sports. I like sports. I like helping people. I thought, “I can be a teacher. I can be a coach.”
As a first-generation college student yourself, what is it like to support aspiring first-generation college students today? It’s fulfilling, but also draining. It is significantly tougher for kids to be first-gen today than it was when I was a kid. There are so many more distractions now with social media. On Mondays, I tell my advisory, “Whatever you did this weekend, that’s your priority, whether you were on your phone or with your girlfriend. If you didn’t get your homework done, that tells you where your priorities are.” There’s a piece where kids have to want it and that’s really hard. For our kids, I worry they could easily become the prey of for-profit colleges.
Do you keep up with your first cohort of graduates from UIC? Yes. They’re on Facebook. That group was really strong and driven, but some of them got tripped up. Kids who were compliant told us yes and did what we told them to do. At college, there wasn’t the same level of oversight, so they dropped. Some high-achieving kids burned themselves out in high school and they struggled, too.
How well-prepared are Baker’s seniors for college? I think their drive is on par with the UIC kids. The two biggest barriers our kids will have are: Did you go to the right school? Do you really want it?
What’s the biggest challenge around college advising at Baker? We can’t make you do anything. All we’re doing is advising on what’s the best play. Sometimes the issue is to push kids out of their comfort zone, away from places where they might be undermatched. Sometimes we get emotional pushback. Then there’s that disconnect between what’s the brand and what’s a good school for you? We look for schools with strong graduation rates for minority students.
What about culture shock? I heard a class discussion at Baker about micro-aggressions. All the students were talking about how they learned to be aware when they might be hurting someone else with a micro-aggression. None of them talked about how to cope when they are on the receiving end. I think every kid is going to go through it. I’m looking forward to the kids experiencing culture shock in other ways, like never having to worry about having enough food or being safe. We took a college trip to Marquette and when we went to Starbucks, everyone was leaving their laptops unmanned. My students were shocked. They hadn’t seen that level of unspoken social trust before. I’m looking forward to those kinds of moments. You have to embrace new experiences. You have to go skiing even if you’ve never gone skiing before.
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...