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The coronavirus crisis has been extremely challenging for many first-generation college students

Key Points
  • Mateo Garces-Jimenez is a student at Montclair State University
  • He connected with several first-generation college students and heard the extraordinary struggles they are facing in this pandemic – lost jobs, lost apartments, a responsibility to care for family members and more.
  • One thread was consistent: A determination to succeed and get their college degree, a huge achievement for them – and their entire family.

CNBC's "College Voices 2020" is a series written by CNBC summer interns from universities across the country about coming of age, launching new careers and job hunting during a global pandemic. They're finding their voices during a time of great social change and hope for a better future. What money issues are they facing? How are they navigating their student loans? How are they getting work experience, networking and applying for jobs when so many opportunities have been canceled or postponed? How important is diversity and a company's values to Gen Z job seekers?

Many young people dream of going to college to set themselves on a path to success — that takes on even more meaning for students who are the first in their family to go to college. However, going to college can put financial stress on these families and that stress has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

To start, 27% of first-generation college students come from households with an income of $20,000 or less, compared with only 6% of students who were not the first in their household to go to college, according to a survey by the Institute of Education Sciences, the non-partisan research arm of the Department of Education.

And the current pandemic has only worsened their financial needs.

When Rutgers University told their students to remain home for the rest of the spring semester, Natalia Leguizamon a neuroscience and behavior major at the Newark campus, had no idea what she would have to go through for the next four months. Before quarantine, Leguizamon, who is the first in her family to attend a four-year college, used to work up to 40 hours a week as a bartender to pay for school tuition and other crucial expenses.

Leguizamon was able to finish her spring semester from home, but she does not know whether she will enroll back for the fall. Her workplace just recently opened but her hours have been cut down. Her mother, who works in childcare, is currently unemployed and so is her brother, who also works in the hospitality industry, which has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Only Leguizamon's father is currently employed, and he must provide for her family.

Natalia Leguizamon at her home in Ridgefield, NJ.
Source: Mateo Garces Jimenez

"I need to be open to any possible outcome," Leguizamon says. "I want to go back in the fall, but it may represent a financial challenge for me and my family. Right now, they need me, and I want to be able to help them. I am still not sure what I will do for the fall, but one thing I do know is that I will get my degree no matter what, because I deserve it, and my parents deserve it."

First-generation students have been more gravely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders because many don't have the resources to leave campus and go back home, many don't have adequate tools to do their course work effectively or they have other family obligations like caring for — and educating — younger siblings, says Sarah Whitley, senior director of the Center for First-generation Student Success.

You see so many students doing work "from their cellphones or doing it in their cars because you can go and park at McDonald's or someplace that has Wi-Fi," Whitley said. Or, they're "sitting in elementary school parking lots to get internet and educate their younger siblings," she added.

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Some first-generation students might be afraid to ask or don't know how to access help that is available to them, Whitley said. Before the pandemic, only 55% of first-generation students met with an academic advisor during the first two years of college compared to 70% students who weren't the first in their family to go to college, according to the Center for First-generation Student Success. And, the pandemic has only added to stress and responsibilities, so many may not think to reach out for help.

The Center for First-generation Student Success has created a response for those students in need affected by COVID-19.  Whitley also encourages any students who are struggling to contact their schools — many have specific programs for them as well as scholarships and academic rewards that might be able to help.

"If you really are having financial hardship or you need to stay closer to home, go and talk to the people at your institution to learn about what your options are. Just about every institution has a financial aid office and they often have a scholarship expert. They can help you do scholarship search" to help you through this financially, she said.

At the University of Portland, for example, where an estimated 20% of the student population is first-generation college students, there is an organization called FGEN to help provide resources and assistance to students to guide them through things they and their families may be unfamiliar with. Whether it's language, forms that need to be filled out or financial assistance – anything they need to help guide them to success and a college degree.

Kendra Dickey, 20, and Devonna Begay, 21, are rising seniors at the University of Portland and student ambassadors of the FGEN program. They have both faced financial struggles amid the pandemic since the moment they were asked to leave their dorms to go back home.

Kendra Dickey exploring Portland, OR
Source: Kendra Dickey

"We got an email on Thursday -- it was March 12th -- we had to be out by Sunday," said Dickey, which only left her a few days to search for a new place to stay for the next months. She also needed to find a job to help her pay rent. That wasn't an easy task as many employers have laid off employees, frozen hiring or temporarily closed. Luckily, she found a job in the food industry, which provided some financial relief.

Begay, originally from the Navajo Nation of Arizona, knew that going back home was not an option. There, she would not have access to internet to continue her studies and there was also the risk of getting her family members infected with Covid-19, so she stayed at her boyfriend's house in Portland.

"The last four months have been a challenge for me. Both of my parents lost their jobs because of Covid-19. The Navajo Nation has been hit pretty hard and there have been times when I felt hopeless for not being able to support them," Begay said. She was on planning to join the U.S. Army next year but changed her mind, given other priorities in her life right now.

Devonna Begay hiking at Zion National Park in Utah.
Source: Tonena Begay

Read more of Devonna Begay's story: This college student from the Navajo Nation now wants to become the chief of police for her reservation

But despite the uncertain times that both Dickey and Begay have experienced since the pandemic started, they both are determined to get their college degrees and have not considered dropping out.

Matt Daily, the assistant director and program manager of the FGEN program, says persistence is a common characteristic of first-generation students as they know that college will open a wide number of opportunities for them.

"First-gen students have a spirit of resiliency that it doesn't surprise me that despite of all this they are enduring and doing very well," he said. It is this resiliency that has taken many first-gen students to succeed and triumph despite the financial burden.

"Right now is a difficult time for all first-gen students as they are facing a health and economic crisis that is changing the world as it is," says Julissa Arce, the author of "My (Underground) American Dream," co-founder of the Ascend Educational Fund, which offers scholarship for immigrant students, and is herself a first-generation success story. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and she graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. She made international headlines when she revealed a few years ago that she had worked her way up to vice president at Goldman Sachs before the age of 30 while she was undocumented.

Arce said universities aren't doing enough to help their students but there may be some resources available, and students shouldn't feel ashamed to ask for help. 

She also encouraged students who are struggling to consider all options, including taking time before finishing their degree to get an internship or get the financial help that they need.

Her own story is one of perseverance and determination to succeed — and these are qualities that she stresses for first-generation students who are struggling today.

"This will pass and what really matters is to advocate for yourself and your goals," Arce said. "In the future you will look back and see that if you made it through a pandemic, nothing will stop you from now on."

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.