Perspective from a family’s first-generation college student

For some students who grow up in Chicago Heights, Ill., gang violence can distract students from pursuing postsecondary education. But for Daniel Chavez, going to college was a given, despite the neighborhood violence that surrounded him.

“It was not something that I thought was special; it followed the track,” said Chavez, a sophomore in LAS. “It was just normal for me.”

Chavez is a first-generation student, the first in his family to attend a university. Both his mother and father are from a small town in Guanajuato, Mexico, where opportunities for education are much harder to obtain and pursue.

“Usually people don’t go to the university because it’s so far away, and traveling around the area of Mexico that I’m from is really dangerous because of the cartels,” Chavez said.

First-generation college students are faced with specific disadvantages when it comes to higher education. According to the National Education Longitudinal Study, only 47 percent of students whose parents did not pursue higher education enrolled in college the year after graduating from high school, compared to the 85 percent enrollment for students whose parents had college degrees. Out of this year’s University freshman class — about 7,331 — 21 percent are first-generation college students.

Chavez comes from parents with differing education levels. After third grade, Chavez’s mom discontinued her childhood education due to hardships in her family’s financial situation. She started sewing clothes for profit to help her single mother. Chavez’s father was raised in America and finished with a high school education.

“They’re really proud,” Chavez said. “I don’t think my dad is as proud of me as my mom. He thinks it’s a given. He would’ve killed me if I didn’t come here. But my mom is really proud of me.”

These differing views on education play out for many students who are the first to attend college in their family. Only 44 percent of first-generation college students’ parents expect them to finish with a degree, while 88 percent of second- or higher generation college students are held to that expectation, according to the findings from the Institute of Education Sciences.

Chavez’s younger brother, Julian, is also proud of Chavez’s decision to obtain a higher education, but has decided a different path for himself.

“I wasn’t really a big fan of school even though I was pretty smart, so I didn’t consider going to college,” Julian said. “But I think my brother is going to do great things in his life and in other people’s lives, too. I know he has the potential to do what he wants and to be who he wants to be because we both are very ambitious and always welcome a challenge.”

Though Julian learned how to ride a bike first and Chavez can run faster and longer than him, competition aided both of them in striving to do their best. Chavez developed a competitive spirit as a way to push him not to give up on his goals.

“Getting into any college is hard enough, but Daniel persevered and got into an extremely prestigious college,” said Shivam Khanna, a friend of Chavez’s and sophomore in Engineering, “It takes a lot of work and effort on Daniel’s part, considering his parents weren’t really able to guide him through the process of getting to college. It’s a testament to his motivation and intelligence. Basically, he was able to come here because he worked hard and set goals for himself.”

Khanna and Chavez met as freshmen in Scott Hall. Khanna found it impressive that Chavez chose to attend the University after learning about the prevalence of gang violence and drug abuse in Chicago Heights. As a college student, the hardest part is prioritizing and managing oneself, Khanna said.

“As far as I have seen, Daniel is adept at managing himself and making sure he gets his work done on time, something that will continue to help him succeed as he graduates and begins working,” Khanna said, “He is one of the most driven and hard-working people I have met.”

When Chavez is not studying for his psychology classes, he participates in Archery Club, Tae Kwon Do and the Psi Chi Undergraduate Psychology Association. He also has four other younger siblings — Casey, Carla, Leo and Lilly — and he hopes they will follow his lead in the future.

“Some of my other siblings don’t have the drive right now, but I think they could. I think it’s all about if you have the drive and if you want to,” he said.

Alice can be reached at [email protected]