WASHINGTON, DC -- It was a memorable day for students as they entered the storied doors of the nation’s most famous residence on Thursday, June 23rd. First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed this group of over 130 college-bound students to the White House for the Beating the Odds Summit.
This group of rising freshmen all came from under-represented backgrounds. As part of the First Lady’s Reach Higher initiative, the summit focused on strategies that the students could use as they transition towards their post high school education. Michelle Obama started the Reach Higher initiative in the hopes that it would encourage every student in the United States to earn a post-secondary degree. The day was filled with practical advice and suggestions, but a major surprise came later in the afternoon when President Barack Obama burst into the East Room to greet the students.
Though seeing the President was a thrilling a moment for the students in attendance, the day was really meant to encourage and inspire them as they make their way through higher education. One person who was a part of the agenda was perhaps the most relatable for the incoming freshmen: Brown University senior Manuel Contreras.
The son of two Mexican immigrants, Contreras is a first-generation college student. “I always knew I had to go to college,” he said to the group. He attributes that drive to attend college to his parents. They both emphasized hard work, and that education was key to achieving the American dream.
Contreras also spoke candidly about the tough transition from his hometown of San Diego to the storied Brown campus in Providence, Rhode Island. In addition to meeting classmates that were wealthier and had read books he had never heard of, Contreras had to adjust to fierce wintry blizzards. They were times when he didn’t even feel like he belonged on the campus. During one particularly nasty winter spell Contreras talked with two fellow students in their Brown residence about their shared experiences as first-generation college students.
That conversation led to the three founding 1vyG, a student networking organization that works across the Ivy League to connect fellow first-generation students. Since co-founding the group last year, Contreras believes that new conversations are taking place all over the Ivy League. “It was amazing what talking about these issues could really do,” he says.
The feelings of isolation that Contreras experienced when he first arrived at Brown are common for first-generation students. According to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, during the 2007-2008 academic year “approximately half of all Latino college students had parents whose highest level of education was a high school diploma or less.” Currently only 37 percent of Latinos who have completed high school (and are between the ages of 18 and 24) have enrolled in college. For Contreras 1vyG was an outlet to a new opportunity to dialogue that is desperately needed on college campuses.
One rising college freshman who attended the day’s event was Tiffany Rodriguez from Philadelphia. She will be attending Temple University in the Fall. “Even though my parents didn’t go to college I think that motivated me more because now I’m the first one in my family to go college.” Seeing the President was also an added bonus for the day. “The advice the First Lady and President Obama gave us was awesome.”
As Contreras prepares for his senior year at Brown, he and his fellow co-founders of 1vyG are looking toward the future. The first Conference from the group will be hosted at Harvard in the Spring. Contreras appreciates that issues like income inequality are now more discussed on college campuses. In the future he hopes that institutions like the Ivy League start looking at structural changes to assist first-generation students. As for the students he met at the White House, he’s quite confident in their future. “I was overwhelmed by the sheer power in the room and the commitment that these students have to making a difference.”