“There are many structural barriers to success for the first-gen college community.” I hear the words “structural barrier” a lot when talking to people who work with first-gen students or who are familiar with the issue. Before I delve into this topic, let’s break down what a “structural barrier” is. Essentially, it is a feature that is part of a system. This feature can make it difficult for people who are less privileged to access the opportunities that are necessary to ensure their success. An example of this would be needing a college degree to become a nurse, but lacking the financial means to attend an institution of higher learning.
Last week, we posted about a study published by the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health. In the study, Andrew Conway and Amy Lewin point to several contributing factors that are causing Latinx youth in Montgomery County to trail their peers in terms of academic development. Some of these included coming from low-income households, having parents with low or no English proficiency, and living in a household where some kind of substance abuse is prevalent. One of the points that struck me, was that in 2017, only 24 percent of Latinx students demonstrated Kindergarten readiness, compared to 67 percent of their White peers.
That means that from the get-go, these students are starting behind the finish line, due to reasons that are beyond their control—structural barriers. These barriers become more pronounced as time goes on. Recently I was speaking with someone regarding how to recruit more diverse candidates for a competitive internship position. Though well-intentioned, I kept thinking about a different conversation I’d recently overheard. Someone who was looking over applications for a highly competitive position was astounded that a person would leave their restaurant experience on their resume for such a high-caliber job.
That right there, is the problem. The fact that there are people reviewing applications who don’t understand that for many applicants, work takes up a large portion of their time. They don’t have the luxury of lining their resumes with competitive internship after competitive internship. When you don’t have the ability to pick up and move every summer and pay astronomical sums in rent, you often don’t have the resume that stands out. That’s not to say that many of these students aren’t equally competent or would do as good or even better job than their peers.
Students who’ve worked through college, who’ve had to get creative in order to circumvent obstacles, who don’t give up when things get a little rough, often make stellar candidates because of their tenacity—they bring those skills and resiliency to their work.
Although the study out of UMD reflects a harsh and sad reality, I am inspired by the work of researchers like Lewin and Conway. Shedding light on these issues, having concrete data to support the work programs like Identity are doing in the community, is crucial. One of the reasons I initially started working on Breaking Cycle was because I sensed the gap, but didn’t have the numbers to prove it. Thanks to Lewin and Conway we have a better picture of the issues facing the Latinx community in Montgomery County. We have a long road ahead of us, but those barriers will continue to be chipped at—of that I have no doubt. Onwards and upwards.