Filmmaker Adam Fenderson’s new documentary “First Generation” explores the journey of four different high school students hoping to become the first members of their family to attend college.
Specifically interesting for VOXXI readers is the story of Cecilia, a first generation U.S. citizen and daughter of Mexican migrant field workers who faces an uncertain future filled with societal hurdles and educational barriers that threaten to keep her from realizing her dream of going to college.
Fenderson told VOXXI that Cecilia’s journey, one of four high school students spotlighted in the 95-minute feature (narrated by Blair Underwood), not only resonated with him but has inspired countless others who have viewed the film.
“‘First Generation’ is an important feature for any community that is struggling with getting students to and through college,” Fenderson said. “In the Latino community, there are different struggles that are based within that culture. One of the things especially we focus on in our film is the struggle of leaving family and going out on your own. That’s something that a lot of Latino students face.”
Not only is Cecilia’s father was deported just before Fenderson started filming, but she’s basically responsible for taking care of her two younger brothers while her mother struggles to get by. Despite the responsibilities, she runs track and cross-country and challenges herself in the classroom by taking multiple honors and AP classes.
“She had the grades and determination to go to college but she was struggling with, ‘How do I leave my family’?” Fenderson said. “She said in the film her mom wanted her to grow up, get married and have kids. Women don’t go to college, that idea. Her mother didn’t support her at all.”
For Cecilia today, watching the entire experience is somewhat surreal.
“The first time I watched the movie it was very difficult,” Cecilia told VOXXI. “Of course, I got emotional and did tear up because I remembered I went through those struggles.”
The life Cecilia has documented in “First Generation” is very different from her life today as a college graduate. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and political science from California State University, Bakersfield, she’s now waiting to hear back about grad school. Up next, she hopes to become a lawyer.
Invariably because of the film, Cecilia has become a role model to people in a similar situation all over the country.
“I feel like I can set an example for them, and I have to be an example for them,” Cecilia said. “I’m held to a certain standard, and it feels great.”
Beating the odds is what Cecilia accomplished by not only attending but graduating from college. According to a 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research study, only 8 percent of promising low-income students with an A-minus or higher high school GPAs (scoring at the 90th percentile or above on the SAT or ACT) applied this year to the selective colleges that would challenge them academically.
As for what audiences should take away from her story in “First Generation,” Cecilia said, “I hope students and parents take away that going to college is affordable and it’s not impossible.”
Added Fenderson, “We got a comment yesterday from a student who saw the film. He said, ‘I was thinking about going to the Army because I thought that was my only choice and now I want to go to college.’ That’s what we hope for.
“For adults and educators, what we want to point out is low-income and first generation students not going to college is a national issue across all boundaries and races. It’s everywhere, and we cannot wait for someone else to fix the problem.”
Originally published on VOXXI as “First Generation” students explore the journey to college