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First-Generation Graduates Find Path To Success

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Aired 6/3/11

About 39 percent of Americans over 25 have a college degree. The Obama Administration says raising that rate is key to the country’s economic future. Two local grads could be part of that increase.

— It signals the start of summer. Thousands of college students donning robes and mortarboards to walk across a stage and receive the degree they’ve been working toward for years.

Anthony Porter, 24, finishes putting on his graduation robe, mortarboard and honors cords in the parking lot just before commencement, May 21, 2011
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Above: Anthony Porter, 24, finishes putting on his graduation robe, mortarboard and honors cords in the parking lot just before commencement, May 21, 2011

Marissa Gozalez, 24, walks across the stage at Spreckles Organ Pavilion during the San Diego City College commencement ceremony May 21, 2011.
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Above: Marissa Gozalez, 24, walks across the stage at Spreckles Organ Pavilion during the San Diego City College commencement ceremony May 21, 2011.

At San Diego State University’s Colleges of Science and Engineering commencement, Anthony Porter, 24, is one of beaming students assembled in the parking lot behind Aztec Center before the ceremony get started.

He is the first in his family to complete a college degree. He’s beaten some tough odds. First-generation college students are more likely to drop out after their first year than students whose parents have college degrees. Those who stay are less likely to be on track to complete their degree after three years.

He owes his success to his supportive family and SDSU's Educational Opportunity program for first-generation and low-income students, he said.

“They really help you pick your classes and help you to find the resources that you need around campus. But also, they give you opportunities to lead, and they gave me the opportunity to be a mentor, so I was able to do one-on-one mentoring with a lot of students," Porter said. "It feels really good when you see them grow and get good grades and stuff like that.”

Those leadership opportunities led to several years of long days. Between classes, mentoring, and a part-time job on campus, Porter said he would arrive at school around 8 a.m. on a typical day and stay until about 7 p.m.

Before transferring to SDSU from CalPoly Porter took some time off to travel with a drum line team that competed around the country. He also coached SDSU's drum line after aging out of competitions at 21.

But even with all of those other commitments and interests, Porter did more than just graduate with a bachelor's of science degree in statistics. He did it with honors and got his department's award for academic excellence.

Even during his years focused on drumming, Porter’s mother Kelly never doubted he would shine as a college student.

“He was so focused on whatever it was, whatever it was. He was like the only kid that was always doing homework, literally. I don’t know why – I didn’t push him, he just did. He had to finish it, he had to do it, that’s kind of how he’s been," she said. "Once he found what he loved, it was just no doubt, so it was fairly simple after that. It’s just exciting! He did it!”

Being the first in the family to take a step into higher education is part of the culture across town at San Diego City College. About a third of the students are first-generation college attendees.

Marissa Gonzalez, 24, spent three years earning two associates degrees. One is in biology, the other in behavioral and mental health. The honors student had to give college a couple of tries. She first enrolled in 2006.

“The reason I wanted to start school was because I was bored at home and when I went to school I found that I had a dilemma because I didn’t like school either," she said. "I just didn’t find the reason I wanted to be there, to continue with my classes. I didn’t find it fun, like a teenager would have and so I decided to drop and hang out with my so-called friends and party.”

When she re-enrolled in 2008 something changed.

“In high school, I rarely read my assignments or did anything," she said. "And when I actually started reading and doing everything the professor told me to do I realized, ‘Wow, I’m learning something new.’ So, this is the key to success.”

But, her new-found love of learning wasn’t all it took to keep her in school. She also joined the college’s MESA, or Math, Engineering and Science Achievement, Alliance. MESA gives student opportunities to network with professionals in their chosen field and has guidelines that help students follow through on things like meeting with professors and setting goals to improve their performance.

Even with the help of of the MESA Alliance program, finishing school this time around didn't always feel like a sure thing for Gonzalez.

“There were some times probably around midterms and finals where it just seems like there’s no possible way I can do all these things. And I just have to sit there, let the tears roll down my face and say – bring me back to block one where I started, and really just give me that extra push as to why I decided to go to school," she said. "And, there’s been challenges, I’m not going to lie. I did want to give up, but I didn’t.”

Realizing how her parents struggled to support her and her two sisters on minimum wage salaries was part of what pushed Gonzalez into school. She realizes now they wished she would go to college immediately after high school, but she said they never pushed too hard. Just encouraged her to think about her future.

With her family on hand to see her graduate at the City College commencement At the Spreckles Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park, she said she’s still surprised by how far she has come in the last three years.

“It’s still surreal to me that I’ve accomplished this and that I came so far to earn these degrees," she said. "I heard the first degree is the hardest, so I know that I’m able to do anything past this associates degree, so I’m really excited and I’m happy.”

Gonzalez has already started taking classes to get her bachelor’s in nursing and the example she is setting could pave the way for another degree earner.

“In the military I’m away sometimes six, nine months at a time and I’m not going to be there to help her," her husband Steven said. So, the way she did it on her own – mostly – that stood out more to me. For sure it was inspiring and made me check myself and say, hey – I can do it, too. Our family can do it, too. We want a whole line of scholars in our family. It would be something really great to see.”

Gonzalez and Porter may be the first in their families to get a post-secondary degree, but they will not be the last. Gonzalez's younger sister was at commencement, too, also getting an associates degree. Porter's brother and sister are both enrolled at other California State University campuses, following closely at his heels.

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