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FINE Newsletter, Volume VIII, Issue 1
Professional Development Tools to Make Continuous Family Engagement Come Alive! 

Expert Commentary

Sylvia Acevedo, chair of the Early Learning Subcommittee of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, writes about the struggles first-generation students and their families face when making decisions about college, interwoven with her own personal story. This is an expert commentary about the Making a Decision About College Interactive Case.

Getting on the plane that would take me away from our family home in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Stanford University was one of the most difficult moments in my life. As my family and I waited to board the plane, tears were streaming down our faces and my heart felt as if it was being pulled out of my chest. Even as they were wiping away their tears, my family was united in their message to me, “Do your best and make us proud.” Their support had not always been so unified or unconditional. When I had first broached the idea of leaving southern New Mexico to go to school in California, the response was that it was too far away, too expensive, and not necessary.

As one of the first Latinas to earn a graduate engineering degree from Stanford, I have lived through the challenges that confront many first-generation students like Marisela: financial, familial, gender, academic, and social. Before I could embark on my dream of attending Stanford, I had to prepare myself, and my family, for the impact my departure would have on the balance to our family system as well as on me as an individual.

Family responsibilities are a powerful tug, as is the sense of obligation for the care, support, and guidance of younger siblings and possibly elderly grandparents. Like many first-generation students, I had the responsibility of serving as a “relationship broker,” providing my hard-earned skills in negotiating the U.S. educational, legal, and health care systems on behalf of family members, including my developmentally disabled sister.  

Unlike Marisela and many of today’s first-generation students who have some academic and financial support along the educational path, I didn’t have those resources. However, I currently mentor many students, especially Latinas, who want to pursue degrees in the nontraditional fields of STEM and medicine. I understand that the guidance offered from well-meaning teachers and admissions counselors must be augmented with support that acknowledges the first-generation student’s role in the family. 

To successfully embrace this wonderful opportunity of pursuing the dream school and dream profession, the students must ensure that their family is taken care of in their absence and that they also have the support that they need for school. Otherwise, trying to provide translation services or emotional and financial support from a distance frequently negatively impacts the time and attention students need for their academic life, and it also causes the family to suspend important decisions until the student is available. Family pressures build, and all too often students either underperform in school by changing majors to a less rigorous course load, transfer to a local university or community college, or even drop out of school, resulting in a lower-than-average graduation rate nationally for Latinos.1

What is more successful is an approach that considers the entire family in the decision. With first-generation students, especially in nontraditional fields such as STEM or medicine, having family support is vital, because the social structures to support the student may not be in existence in their chosen field. There may be no one who looks like the student or who comes from a similar socioeconomic background or who understands what it is like to be a pioneer, navigating a complex academic system on their own. Especially for families with a collective cultural mindset, like Marisela’s, if they can understand that supporting the student in pursuing their dreams will eventually benefit the entire family, they more readily redistribute and accommodate family responsibilities. After all, many of the parents made major sacrifices themselves in coming to the U.S.

Educators and counselors can be more successful if they take the time to discuss the benefits to the family and the student, and not just the sacrifices. This additional step is vital for families to understand and support the student’s dreams and desires, transforming the student’s journey from a solo venture to an entire family journey, each with their own roles.

Students in the U.S., especially high-achieving students, are expected and encouraged to have and make the determining decision on where they go to college, independent of any family responsibilities (other than financial.) An imperative step for first-generation students to be able to attend the college of their dreams is helping families to understand the difference in postsecondary educational institutions and degrees. First-generation families don’t have experience with U.S. higher-education institutions, frequently equating all college experiences— from community colleges to elite institutions—as providing an equivalent educational experience. Without understanding the higher-education institutions and the degrees conferred, it is far too easy for families to only see cost, convenience, and location as the most important determining factors in the college enrollment decision.

In Marisela’s case, there is another way to approach this situation rather than simply obliging Marisela to be the one to choose between her dream of attending a four-year school that prepares her for medical school and “abandoning her family,” or attending a community college that does not provide the entire college experience and that imperils her opportunity to attend medical school. With her teacher and counselors, they can all embrace the opportunity to help her mother and siblings to understand their collective future, both immediate and longer term, as Marisela pursues her dreams. They can better understand the experience for Marisela, both in personal sacrifice and hardship. In turn, they can redistribute the family obligations, allowing her to focus on her studies.

One of my happiest memories as a student was my graduation from Stanford University. My family made the long drive to Palo Alto to share in the wonderful achievement honored that day at commencement. My father’s smile could not have been brighter. There were tears, but this time they were of joy, as we joined together as a family, celebrating the family milestone that was my graduation as one of the first Latinas to earn a graduate engineering degree from Stanford.

1 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2010). Low Hispanic College Graduation Rates Threaten U.S. Attainment Goals. Retrieved from

Sylvia Acevedo is an award-winning CEO who has earned worldwide recognition for her work in addressing one of society’s most vexing challenges—universal access to education. In 2011, Acevedo was named to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, where she serves as chair of the Early Learning Subcommittee. Acevedo started her career as a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She has since served as an executive with Fortune 100 companies, including Apple, IBM, Autodesk, and Dell. Acevedo holds a master’s degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University and a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from New Mexico State University.

This resource is part of the March 2016 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family engagement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archives of past issues, please visit

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project