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COVID-19 Widens Disparities For First-Generation College Students

The first cohort of Valley Scholars, a program that starts working with prospective first-generation college students in middle school, are now college freshmen. (Photo: Megan Pauly, VPM News)
The first cohort of Valley Scholars, a program that starts working with prospective first-generation college students in middle school, are now college freshmen. (Photo: Megan Pauly, VPM News)

More than half of today’s college students are the first in their families to go to college in the U.S. And as the spring semester wraps up, the coronavirus is adding a whole new layer of obstacles. 

Megan Pauly spoke to two first-generation college freshmen at James Madison University in Harrisonburg about how they’ve been coping. 


PAULY: For JMU freshmen Pierre Mbala and Brooklyn Kier, the transition from in-person to online learning has been…

MBALA: Annoying...

KIER:  Difficult… 

PAULY: Both have moved off campus and in with family during the pandemic. For Brooklyn, it’s been hard having to use a chat box to ask questions of teachers instead of raising her hand as she normally would.

KIER: So then I had to wait till after the class is over to then ask her the question.

PAULY: Pierre is missing his classmates, and the rhythm of on-campus life that used to help him stay on track.

MBALA: Like, I'd either ride my bike to a new location and then I know I need to be doing this, this and that, and check this.

MOONEY: Right now, we're hoping that all these students will continue to move forward.

PAULY: That’s Sean Mooney, director of Valley Scholars, a program for first-generation college students at JMU. He says the novel coronavirus has tacked on some novel challenges for students like Brooklyn and Pierre. 

MOONEY: This is something that very easily could have a student throwing up their hands in the first week or two and saying, you know, I just can't do this.

PAULY: Research shows that first-generation students are much less likely to graduate than their peers. Across the country, only about 20 percent of first-generation students get a bachelor's degree in six years. 

They face social, cultural, and financial obstacles other students don’t. First-gen students often have extra family responsibilities, too. The Valley Scholars program at JMU was set up to help them tackle these issues. But now the coronavirus pandemic is adding more complications OR is complicating things even more. 

Freshman Brooklyn Kier has been juggling her own assignments while helping her four-year-old niece with her school work. 

KIER: So like, learn her ABCs and how to write her name and her numbers.

PAULY: Brooklyn tried to recruit her younger siblings as an audience for a speech she had to record. 

KIER: It was difficult because my siblings kept on making me laugh, so I had to start over a lot.

PAULY: But she’s been deliberate about setting aside specific times to focus on her assignments: early in the morning, and late in the evening. And she’s also checking in with a mentor for extra support. 

Valley Scholars director Shaun Mooney says faculty and mentors have been keeping in regular contact with students.  He knows it’s been harder for some to continue classes online.

MOONEY: We have one student who is going to another family member's house to complete work because that access at home is not adequate because there's no broadband and there's no high-speed cellular service in the area he lives.

PAULY: And if they can’t get online at all, staff have been charting out alternative learning plans. 

But it’s not just current college students Mooney’s worried about. The program works with prospective first-gen students, too, in middle and high school. Before the pandemic, seniors were on track to start college in the fall.

MOONEY: The other day, my wife went to the grocery store, close our home. And there's one of our Valley scholar students who's a senior, she's working behind the glass wall that they put up at the Food Lion for the cashiers because she has to. Her family needs the money and the income.

PAULY: Mooney says high schoolers in the program won’t lose their full-tuition scholarship if they can’t start college in the fall.  

Normally, seniors would be meeting with freshmen like Brooklyn and Pierre in-person right about now to see the campus and get a taste of college life. 

The university had planned a summer picnic, but that’s been canceled. Now, they’ll be meeting virtually.

For VPM News, I'm Megan Pauly.


Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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