In April, Tanya Ledford left a 22-year-long education career teaching history and English at public schools in Henderson and Polk counties.
But Ledford’s new job hasn’t taken her far from the classroom. She is now assisting Hispanic high school students, many of them the first in their family to seek a college education, through the application process on behalf of True Ridge, a Hendersonville-based nonprofit serving Western North Carolina’s Hispanic population.
For many Hispanic students, “the biggest problem is lack of information” about applying to college, Ledford says. “I was floored that so many students don’t even realize they have the opportunity to do so — whether they’re documented or undocumented.”
The program, called La Promesa, began in fall 2021 and is one of several WNC resources, both within schools and outside the classroom, for first-generation students.
Buncombe County Schools plans to begin collecting data on first-generation seniors, which it defines as those whose parents did not complete a four-year college degree, in its 2022-23 senior exit survey, says Suzanne Gavenus, a student support and transition specialist for the system. It began collecting data for those entering high school last year and found that, among the incoming class of 2025, 44% identified themselves as first-generation students.
The population is substantial enough that last year’s virtual college planning night offered two sessions — one in English and one in Spanish — titled “First Gen Students: Preparing for College Success,” says Gavenus.
‘A lot of unknowns’
Through La Promesa, Ledford collaborates with English as a second language teachers and principals to identify Hispanic seniors who may benefit from support. (A bilingual assistant supports Ledford, who does not speak Spanish, to communicate in accurate and culturally appropriate ways with families.) College counselors at high schools do great work helping students with applications, Ledford says, but their workload can be overwhelming. And counselors may not be able to provide the one-on-one assistance that some first-generation students need.
Ledford is working with eight high schools across Henderson and Polk counties; as of Jan. 5, she had met with about 100 students and is working on individual college applications with 10. She anticipates more requests for La Promesa assistance as the second semester of senior year progresses (citing the tendency for teenagers to procrastinate).
Applying to colleges and scholarships can be “a lot more complicated” for Hispanic students if they encounter residency and tax filing status issues, Ledford continues. Students whose parents don’t have Social Security numbers, for example, are automatically given out-of-state tuition unless they provide additional documents such as a driver’s license or immunization records.
Melanie Yeager, a counselor at Nesbitt Discovery Academy, says she has directed students and families to Spanish services at the College Foundation of North Carolina, a free service provided by the state to assist with education and career planning. Two representatives among a staff of nine focus on Spanish services.
And some students may have basic questions about what they’re getting themselves into. Sarah Mohr, an admissions counselor at UNC Asheville who previously served in the College Advising Corps helping first-generation, low-income families in South Carolina, recalls one student who didn’t know that year-round housing meant the fall and spring semester. “She thought it meant 12 months,” she recalls.
Mohr adds, “[First-generation students] don’t want to ask questions a lot of times because they feel like they should know the answers.”
Broaching conversations about college early and often is a key strategy for encouraging more equitable college enrollment. Brandon Whiteside, scholarship coordinator for the Asheville City Schools Foundation and a licensed social worker, tries to connect with sophomores and juniors to encourage them “to start thinking about what happens after you graduate.” Then, during the fall semester of senior year, he visits their classes to share the ACSF scholarship catalog.
College affordability is a concern for so many families, so advocates pay much attention to filling out the free application for federal student aid and investigating available scholarships. According to Carolina Demography, a strong positive association exists between completing the FAFSA and enrolling in postsecondary education.
Ledford advises all students to file a FAFSA, regardless of their parents’ tax filing or employment history. If their parents didn’t file taxes in the previous year, a student won’t be eligible for federal aid, but the FAFSA will still be used by local and national nonprofits to determine need, she says. (For example, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hendersonville offers a $2,500 DREAM Scholarship for an undocumented student.)
Financial need is usually foremost on the minds of students who may be the first in their family to attend college, says Whiteside. ACSF holds support sessions on the Asheville High School/SILSA campus during the school day, which can be a particular help for students working after school. Financial literacy is covered in support sessions, as first-generation students may not have encountered terms like FAFSA or EFC (expected family contribution), he says.
Despite its importance, the FAFSA doesn’t always present an accurate view of a family’s finances, says Mohr from UNCA. The FAFSA uses the prior year’s tax information, and from 2019-21, for example, many people’s finances are “drastically different,” Mohr says.
She encourages students to demonstrate financial need in the “community disruption” section on the Common Application, an undergraduate college admission application that can be used at 900 colleges. The section was added to the 2020-21 application for applicants to explain how the COVID-19 pandemic and/or natural disasters affect them personally and academically. Admissions counselors refer to that section for a more holistic view of an applicant, she says.
Lezette Parks, scholarship officer for the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, echoes this sentiment, urging students to “give us as much information as they can regarding any part of their situation,” she says. In 2021, CFWNC granted 104 scholarship awards from 36 funds to 91 students.
Parks advises students applying for CFWNC scholarships to share financial needs in their personal statements. “Anything that’s important or relevant or is going to make you stand apart, we encourage students to put that in there,” she says.
But for some students, writing personal statements or college application essays can be an additional hurdle. Whiteside says ESL teachers are integral to making sure potential first-generation students get the assistance they need; he notes ACSF funds the Writing Center at Asheville High School/SILSA, where any student can seek help during the school day. ACSF also partners with freshman English students at UNCA and community mentors, like former teachers, to help college applicants on their essays.
Whiteside notes that getting kids to share their accomplishments can require some gentle nudging. He helps students create and update resumes to keep track of after-school activities, employment and community work. “One of the biggest barriers, especially for first-generation college students, is articulating all the great things you’ve done,” he says.
‘Not every student can volunteer’
After BCS starts collecting information about first-generation students, it may expand its offerings for college readiness. “Once we have students more formally identified, we can begin to not only track their progress but identify barriers and needs,” says Gavenus. “This will allow us to design programming or interventions to address any learning gaps and needs that we can assist with or make referrals where needed.”
ACSF, the scholarship foundation, has already identified needs and has pivoted to address them. For the past five years, all of its scholarships have been based on financial need. Special consideration has been given to first-generation college students.
Previously, some merit-based scholarships excluded students who may not have had many extracurriculars due to other responsibilities, Whiteside explains. “Not every student can go volunteer 100 hours,” he says. “First-generation college students, they may have to work a job, they may have to help support their family.”
It is crucial that families, especially where the student may be the first in the family to attend college, feel supported through the entire process, says Mohr. “The best resource a student can have is an open door and a safe space that is nonjudgmental to ask questions,” she says.
Ledford notes that La Promesa means “the promise” in Spanish. “We can’t promise that we’re going to get every kid into college,” she says. “But we can promise we’re going to try.”