Supporting Nebraska’s First-Generation College Students


June 16th, 2015

Local initiatives at institutions like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (above) and the University of Nebraska at Kearney are focusing on better supporting first-generation college students from admission to graduation. (Photo by Mikerueben, Wikipedia)

Local initiatives at institutions like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (above) and the University of Nebraska at Kearney are focusing on better supporting first-generation college students from admission to graduation. (Photo by Mikerueben, Wikipedia)

Graduating college is a major accomplishment. When you think about the factors that can make it more challenging, it’s even more remarkable to graduate. Those factors include: being poor, being an immigrant, and being the first in your family to go to college. Some students can check all of those boxes. In Nebraska, there are some programs designed to help those kinds of students succeed.


Lincoln, NE – Trang Hoang is just a month away from graduating from Lincoln High School. This fall she’ll be a freshman at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. Isaac Stansbury is a freshman at the University of Nebraska Kearney.


Hoang and Stansbury have something in common. They’re both the first in their families to go to college.

“My parents are from Vietnam. They immigrated here I think almost 9 years ago. But I moved here almost 5 years ago,” Hoang said.

“Yeah, my dad went to college but he didn’t complete college,” Stansbury said of his parents.

College has been their plan for a long time.

Why college?

“I think it was like my only option for my parents. Like you have to go to college. But I really think it’s the right choice for me. They don’t want me to be a labor worker or anything like that. They want me to use my brain to help the world.” Hoang said.

Stansbury’s parents told him something very similar: “Growing up, my dad, he’s a carpenter and so I would go to work with him sometimes and basically he would just tell me unless you want to be doing this for the rest of your life, you should go to college and find something that you love to do and you’ll be able to have a career in that.”

Trang Hoang starts at UNL this fall and feels both excited and a little nervous about starting college:

Are you excited?

TH: Yes and no (laughs). I think because it’s getting more like the real world now ‘cause I’m pretty much doing everything myself. I am excited to meet new people.

Do you know what you want to study?

TH: Biochemistry as my major right now. I have an awesome chemistry teacher, and I’m taking IB chemistry. We’re learning about biochemistry and organic chemistry now too. And it’s really amazing how everything happen in your body and all the chemical processes, and chemical reactions and pathways. And I really want to learn about it more.

The application process

There are a lot of steps to applying to college. And if you’re the first person in your family to do it, the whole process can be overwhelming.

“It’s hard ‘cause it’s different from what our parents are used to. I think you just have to know what you’re supposed to do,” Hoang said.

For the past year, Hoang has come to Life After High School, a program run by the Community and Cultural Center at Lincoln High. It’s open to all students, with a focus on English Language Learners, to help them plan out their future. For a lot of students, that involves college.

Hoang is also part of a federal program to help first-generation and low-income students get into college called Upward Bound. Hoang says both programs have been a big help because her parents aren’t familiar with the American college system. Things like applying for financial aid were really confusing for them.

“My parents they just assume that if I study really hard and get like really good grades I would automatically have a lot of money for college. But that’s really not the case. You have to do more stuff,” Hoang explained.

An extra safety net

In Kearney, Stansbury was also part of a program in high school that helped him get ready for college. Actually, he’s still in it, and he’ll remain in the program until he graduates from UNK.

“We had meetings where we would get ready to register for classes, we filled out the FAFSA and so without Kearney Bound I would have had to find time to do all of that on my own. But with it, it made it easier because they kind of walked us through and just showed us how to do everything,” Stansbury said.

Forty percent of UNK’s student body is made up of first-generation students. In 2006, UNK started Kearney Bound to directly support these students.

The program is similar but not affiliated with Upward Bound. Kearney Bound tries to remove as many institutional obstacles as they can for its students to get into and stay in college. Getting into Kearney Bound means five years of tuition to go to UNK and an extra safety net while you’re there. Students have a Kearney Bound advisor in addition to their regular advisor. And Kearney Bound students are all required to take a class their first year that’s basically a semester long orientation to campus culture and college resources. For Stansbury, it seems to be working.

“Basically the toughest thing is just balancing my time. Between school work and then my job and trying to have a social life. Really I’m not too worried about finishing school because I know it’s provided for me and I just have to put the work in,” Stansbury said.

According to the Pew Research Center, Hoang and Stansbury’s parents aren’t wrong about what college can do for their kids. Adults with college degrees earn about $17,000 more than their peers with only high school degrees. And the unemployment rate is nearly 3 times lower for young adults with a bachelor’s degree than a high school degree.

Local programs like Kearney Bound, Life After High School, and a peer-mentoring program starting this fall at UNL called First Husker, are all trying to help Nebraska students earn their full potential.


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