Pushed, but not prepared, for life as first-generation college student
“When I first went to college, I had no idea what I wanted to do,” says Professor Angela Clark-Taylor, who is now Rochford Leadership Initiative Faculty Fellow at the University of Redlands School of Education. “My high school guidance counselor didn’t push me to go to college or even take interest in what I might do once I got there.”
Clark-Taylor’s desire to go to college stemmed from her mother’s experiences. “My mom was taking a sociology course for an adult education program and she learned about the socioeconomic disparities between people with bachelor’s degrees and those without,” she says. “Unfortunately, while my mom pushed me to go to college, she couldn’t exactly prepare me.”
As a first-generation college-bound student, Clark-Taylor felt she needed to take her ambition to attend college into her own hands. After being unsatisfied with her experience as a freshman at State University of New York (SUNY) Potsdam, she returned to her native Long Island and enrolled in community college. “I was so frustrated with the lack of support I was given as a first-generation student,” Clark-Taylor recalls.
After earning an associate’s degree and transferred to SUNY Old Westbury to complete her bachelor’s degree, Clark-Taylor admits that she experienced an unexpected bout of culture shock. From academics to extracurricular opportunities, she notes that it was difficult to get involved on campus. In the classroom, she didn’t know how to interact with faculty members.
“There’s this artificial barrier that is established in kindergarten through 12th grade between teachers and students that doesn’t exist in college,” says Clark-Taylor. “I didn’t know that I could ask to conduct research with my professors or develop those relationships in different ways.”
After earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Clark-Taylor was hired to work with college students at the University of Rochester. “My interest in gender equity introduced me to other intersecting identities such as race, socioeconomic status, and the ways in which college can be made accessible for all students,” she says.
Clark-Taylor’s doctoral research and efforts as the program manager of the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Rochester translates directly into her current position as the Rochford Leadership Initiative Faculty Fellow at the University of Redlands.
“The Rochford Leadership Initiative is a college access program for low-income, high-need middle school students within the Redlands Unified School District,” she says. “As a faculty fellow, I will be teaching a series of classes to students at the University of Redlands’ that focus on college access and inequity while emphasizing service learning. Students will learn about the tensions between K-12 and higher education and the importance of a university’s engagement with the local community to improve college access. To accomplish the service learning aspect of the program, the U of R students will then create an evidence-based curriculum on college access for local middle school students.”
When asked if she has any advice for current first-generation students, Clark-Taylor emphasizes developing the knowledge and confidence to navigate complex systems. “Even though there can still be a stigma around being first-generation, I encourage students not to be embarrassed admitting that they don’t know how to access the programs available to them,” says Clark-Taylor. “So few people earn their bachelor’s degrees, and first-generation students should know that what they are doing in college is important for themselves, their families, and home communities.”