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Students of Color

I Learned the Hard Way That College Isn't a Breeze

I grew up in a neighborhood where I, and the majority of my peers, had few positive role models to look up to. I didn't know one person who held a college degree, owned a business, or had a salary-based job, aside from my teachers. When I entered my first semester of college, I thought I was on top of the world. I graduated from high school with honors and scholarships, I was living on campus at UMass Dartmouth, and for a short while, I felt like the Queen of England. When I went back home, family and friends would praise me just for being a college student. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that college is no breeze. I failed, withdrew from, and got poor grades in most of my freshman year classes, which landed me on academic probation twice and ultimately got me dismissed from the university in my first year. Looking back on my experience as a first-generation college student, I wish I’d known how to better navigate the expectations of higher education and had someone to advise me on how to manage my time and studies.

The Power of a Second Chance

The summer after my freshman year, I went back to my school and attempted to have a meeting with the director of student conduct about re-entering college, but it was unsuccessful. Feeling overwhelmed with disappointment in myself, I barely made it to the nearest bathroom before I literally broke down. I remember like it was yesterday, how I cried in the stall of the Arts and Sciences bathroom. I knew that once I got home, I’d have to tell everyone that I just wasn’t good enough, or smart enough, or meant to go to college. When I came out to fix my makeup, an older woman was washing her hands and shyly looking at me with sympathy in her eyes. She asked me if everything was okay, and in that moment I realized I couldn’t do it all on my own anymore. That woman’s name was Jen Riley, and she was an English professor. She listened to my story of where I came from, and how much I’d gone through to get to college. She understood how I felt about wanting to beat the odds placed against me and that [pullquote position="left"]I just needed someone, anyone, to give me a second chance. Professor Riley not only helped me get accepted back into UMass Dartmouth, but she surprised me on my first day back by announcing that she’d requested to become my new advisor. From that day forward, she stuck by my side through personal, educational, and professional struggles, and she showed me what it meant to be a true role model and mentor.

Paying It Forward

All I needed was someone to believe in me and invest in my future. There are still so many students like myself who need the same type of encouragement. Now, as the first person in my family to attend and graduate from college, I have made it my duty to be that role model for my community and for others who struggle as first-generation, low-income, students of color. I joined Students for Education Reform (SFER), an organization of young organizers focused on expanding educational opportunity. SFER primarily serves first-generation college students, students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, who use the power of their own stories to fight for educational justice in their communities. People don’t usually make it out of where I come from. But knowing firsthand the impact one person can have, I've dedicated my life to creating a meaningful impact on others, in the hopes they in turn will make a positive impact on someone else. Rather than just thanking those who believed in and supported you, paying it forward is truly the best way to show your gratitude.
Sasha Sanders is the founder of the “Take Me There” mentoring program, a graduate of UMass Dartmouth and a member of Students for Education Reform.

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