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  • Writer's pictureMariela Gomez

First-Generation students open up about their experiences at CSU Long Beach

Beyond the usual uncertainty and questions that arise before stepping foot on campus, low-income and first-generation college students often face additional pressures and barriers to succeed in the competitive college environment.

According to institutional data provided by California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), 30.36% of that university’s student population are first-generation students, and 52.54% are minority students. Highlighting the experiences of these students is invaluable for helping institutions to recognize disparities that exist on campus.

CSULB has been recognized as the number one “best value” school in the West by Washington Monthly’s 2021 college rankings. These “Best Bang for the Buck” rankings are based on specific metrics provided by 4-year institutions throughout the country. These metrics include contribution to the public good in three categories: social mobility, research, and providing opportunities for public service.

Although CSULB has taken first place in these rankings, I wanted to find out how students from disadvantaged backgrounds feel at the university. I spoke to two first-generation, low-income students to discuss how they navigated the CSULB campus to acquire the resources needed to be successful in college.

Anna Qutami, who graduated from CSULB in 2020 and is currently a graduate student at CSU Fullerton studying marriage and family therapy, opened up about how she felt while seeking supplemental resources on campus.

“Living at the intersection of being Middle Eastern, first-generation, and low-income, I felt as if I had to work much harder than my peers. During my gaps between classes, I was running around campus to find counselors who would connect me with food pantries, emergency grants, class tutoring, and so on. I think the school can better assist students like me by consolidating some of its services. Searching and applying to essential resources is not easy, but I had to do it, given my circumstances. CSULB offers many resources, but the problem is that we don’t know they exist.”

The “Study of Student Service Access and Basic Needs,” a CSU research project, identified the urgent need to provide linkages across all resources, along with visibility and normalization of programs that are vital in supporting the health and success of students.

Qutami elaborated that she often felt frustrated with obtaining resources because there was no specific location or person she could contact to get help. She shared that she sometimes would feel burnt out given the number of times she was “redirected” to a different location on campus.

“If I required writing support, I had to jump so many hurdles to get a short appointment with a tutor. If I needed financial aid guidance, I would have to wait in long lines. If I needed emotional support, I would sometimes have to wait months to see a counselor. It felt like I had to navigate a corn maze on campus to get my needs met,” she explained.

Qutami shared that she is grateful for federal outreach programs like TRIO, which provides services to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. TRIO includes eight programs that assist low-income and first-generation college students and students with disabilities. TRIO consolidates its services into one location, removing the barrier of having resources spread out.

In a Zoom interview, Qutami stated that despite the barriers she faced as a student, she found ways to be involved on campus, conduct research alongside faculty, and work two jobs while being a full-time student and graduating with a 3.8 GPA.

Other students like Romario Flores expressed that being a low-income and first-generation college student is a struggle that many people don’t understand.

Flores, a senior majoring in pre-production at CSULB and a UCLA Dream fellow focused on community organization, believes that inequities at the university are systematic problems in higher education and are not specific to the CSULB campus.

“Take for example, financial aid; many low-income students depend on this aid to attend school, and most of the time, it is not even enough to cover tuition for a semester. If I were at a different university, I would most likely have encountered the same issue. The system is constantly spreading us way too thin. Going to school full time, working, volunteering, and being involved on campus can take an emotional toll on us. I would love to volunteer more hours at the Los Angeles LGBT Center where I currently work with the legal department, but I am limited because I must spend most of my time working a minimum wage job. It is a vicious cycle. Universities need to do a better job in assisting students that are struggling to survive while also obtaining an education."

Data indicated that most students who experience food insecurity, homelessness, or both report that their financial aid package does not cover all of their living expenses. These students do not have enough financial resources and have to make compromises that significantly impact their health and quality of life. Many students are unable to meet their basic needs without help.

Flores expressed that monetary issues are only the tip of the iceberg that low-income students face. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community and a DACA recipient, Flores says he must be proactive in seeking programs, clubs, and resources that aid his emotional wellbeing. Flores is the student leader of “safe spaces,” a support group where students can feel confident sharing their experiences of discrimination, criticism, harassment, and other emotional or physical harms.

“I know thousands of other students like me exist, and I think it’s time we begin aggressively amplifying our stories so our universities better serve us,” said Flores.

Despite the challenges, these students continue to find ways to persevere and rise above the systemic barriers they face every day. Institutions need to acknowledge students’ achievements in the context of opportunities. First-generation, low-income, minority, LGBTQ+, and all other students from disadvantaged backgrounds are trailblazers that continue inspiring the next wave of students who will attend college.

By sharing the stories of students like Ana and Romario, we hope to inspire change within the education system-one initiative at a time.

Check out CSULB Basic Needs resources by clicking here.

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