Editor’s note: This story was produced in conjunction with the Record-Journal’s Latino Communities Reporting Lab.
The journey to be the first in his family to go to college wasn’t easy for Isaiah Pagan. Since his father had only completed middle school and his mother wasn’t around, he was forced to figure things out on his own.
“When I started school in Meriden, I quickly realized I was years behind,” the Platt High School senior said. “I quickly got myself into the pace of learning as fast as I possibly could because I then also had to teach my brother.”
Pagan said he moved around many times on the East Coast through his childhood before settling in Meriden five years ago. Moving also impacted his education.
The 18-year-old said the stability of being in Meriden for five years helped him improve at school. He pushed himself hard and was able to help his younger brother.
The work paid off. Pagan was recently awarded a scholarship to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York to study computer systems and engineering.
Pagan isn’t the only Platt student to overcome obstacles to attend college. First generation college students are defined in different ways, but in general the term refers to someone whose parents did not earn a four-year degree, said Sarah Whitely, senior director for the Center for First-Generation Student Success, in a recent article in U.S. News and World Report.
Kayla Martinez grew up with a single mom in what she described as a dangerous neighborhood in Bridgeport. Since transferring to Platt about a year ago, she is doing much better at school.
“College is really a big accomplishment for me,” she said. “My mom started but she wasn’t able to finish and my older sister didn’t go to college, so this is a big accomplishment.”
Martinez will attend Gateway Community College in New Haven this fall to study to be a certified nursing assistant. Her ultimate goal is to be a pediatric nurse.
“My guidance counselor played a big role and she really helped me with realizing my college plans,” she said.
Both Martinez and Pagan said they received a lot of support from the school’s counseling staff — who answered questions and helped them on their path to college.
Marc Guidone, Platt’s director of school counseling, said the school’s “College Application Campaign” is designed to help every student that wants to attend a two or four year college to apply to at least one school.
“We get to see students be successful and move on to their goals and that’s what it’s all about,” Guidone said. “That’s the rewarding part of the job. It’s nice to hear that they felt supported and guided especially under the circumstances this year.”
Guidone said for the past few years the program has been able to get 100 percent of its participants to apply to at least one school.
“You shouldn’t let your situations hold you back,” Martinez said. “Keep prevailing, keep trying no matter how many times you get knocked down. There will always be obstacles in life and it’s all about how you deal with them.”
Like Pagan, Lyman Hall senior Alexandra Torres moved around a lot growing up before settling in Wallingford in middle school.
“I did move from school to school sometimes,” Torres said. “I think moving schools helped me to become friendlier because I began getting used to it. It helped me to become more social and develop the traits I have now.”
Her mother was born in Colombia and came to Connecticut as a teenager. Torres said her mother, who attended some college, created a good support system for her and always prioritized education, saying that no one could ever take her education away from her.
Torres, who will attend UConn, also received a lot of help from the Spanish Community of Wallingford, a nonprofit that provides a variety of programs to area Latinos.
“It was kind of on me to find out how to apply and go for it,” she said. “Adelante helped me so much. I think the world of them.”
¡Adelante! America, a program through SCOW, is dedicated to providing middle and high school students with support, leadership skills and help to improve academic performance, according to organization’s website.
Torres also got help with the application process from close friends and Lyman Hall school counselors.
According to First Generation Foundation’s website firstgenerationfoundation.org, the Department of Education reported in 2010 that nearly 50 percent of the college population are students whose parents did not graduate from college.
The First Generation Foundation provides resources and services to first generation college students.
“You shouldn’t let your circumstances hold you back,” Pagan said. “There’s always another way.”