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First-generation college attendees can face varying degrees of success

By Xing Wen | China Daily | Updated: 2020-05-20 08:52

Three of the co-founders of the nonprofit China Youth of Tomorrow socialize with friends at an event in Shanghai last year.[Photo provided to China Daily]

It is one of the metrics, a signpost of progress in an improving economy and society-children getting the opportunity of going to college, an opportunity their parents did not have. "First-generation college students" refers to university-bound children from a family where neither of the parents could benefit from higher education.

According to the Chinese College Student Survey issued last year by the Institute of Education under Tsinghua University, from 2011 to 2018, more than 70 percent of all freshmen in China each year were from families without a history of college attendance.

Among this student population, more than 69.74 percent came from rural areas, 70 percent have siblings and many of their parents didn't even receive a high school education.

For children to attend college, when their parents did not have a chance to, is a moment to cherish and feel proud of, but there are challenges.

This group of first-generation college students are commonly from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Only 45 percent or so of them studied in key high schools at, or above, municipal level and nearly 63 percent have chosen to study the sciences as they thought job prospects were better.

By contrast, less than 6 percent chose to major in an arts-related field, which generally requires a higher level of cultural capital and financial muscle, especially from the student's family.

The survey also found that this group of students aren't as likely to actively express their viewpoint, seek support from teachers or peers, or get involved in social events outside classrooms.

These students often have to take up part-time work to help pay their way and, when they leave college, they want to work and get an income straight away to help their families rather than seek more education.

Xia Ye, 31, co-founder of China Youth of Tomorrow, a nonprofit social enterprise that aims to help ambitious students from low-income families, has been thinking about how to improve educational equality in society.

"My father, once a first-generation college student, has told me how hard it was for him, the son of two farmers, to enter a university and navigate through unfamiliar academic and social situations," Xia says.

Born into a well-off family in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Xia admits that she herself is a beneficiary of the cultural and social capital possessed by her parents and also an observer of educational stratification-for example, it's relatively easier for students from well-to-do families to apply for top-ranking universities overseas, but this ambition is generally out of reach for their peers from modest or poverty-stricken families.

Enjoying adequate familial and social support, more affluent students participate in international competitions, take internships in leading companies and do other things to package their resumes in a manner that attracts world-class universities.

"At this point, I think it's a priority to give students a broader range of useful information that would help them to get access to a valuable internship and other social activities," Xia says.

Hence, the nonprofit, China Youth of Tomorrow, has invited seasoned educators and senior managers to extend this group's source of useful information to equip them with more eye-catching accomplishments conducive to their future development.

Xia used to study law at the East China University of Political Science and Law, where her grade was below the average of her college roommates.

Interestingly, Xia is the one who later successively got into Boston University, acted as a civil servant for the local government in Boston, worked for a top law firm in China and ran a lucrative business in Shanghai, while most of her peers chose to take a stable job with lower income after graduation.

"That's because their families were unable to afford for them to study abroad," Xia explains.

To close the gap, Xia says proper mentorship is necessary for these students, helping them to find out what kind of job they sincerely want to embark upon and map out the corresponding career path for them. This way, maybe these students won't make career decisions that they will one day regret.

When working on the nonprofit's charity projects, Xia noticed, surprisingly, that a few students who applied for the projects seldom attended debates and other activities held by the organization.

"Initially, I was a bit angry, wondering why they wasted the opportunities with which they could improve themselves," Xia recalls.

After a heart-to-heart conversation, she found out that it was because they had low self-esteem and a lack of confidence, as no one had ever told them before that they were talented or useful or interesting. They held the idea that they didn't deserve the attention of so many volunteers in the nonprofit, nor the patient instructions from mentors who are often well-established figures.

"I've learned a lot from the experience," says Xia.

"I realized that we project initiators should be approachable and better connected with those young students, encouraging them to open themselves up to the outside world."

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