Nattily dressed in blue blazer and dark jeans, Joel Ambough looks every inch the diplomat he aspires to be. But there’s one thing that sets this undergraduate apart from most other University of Bridgeport students: He’s going to be the first in his family to graduate college.
“My ultimate goal was always to go to school,” Ambough said. “I had it in my mind from the beginning to go back to school, to finish my education.”
A refugee from Togo, the 25-year-old came to the United States six years ago. Preferring to talk among the ordered stacks of the Magnus Wahlstrom Library rather than his home, Ambough is studious and congenial while telling the story of how he came to be enrolled in UB’s Global Peace and Development Program.
As young people across the region head to four-year colleges this month, few must wrestle with the kinds of challenges Ambough faced. For them, attending college is a given.
But for a certain percentage entering and graduating from college takes on a whole new dimension. These are the first generation students.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, first-generation students tend to be older, have lower incomes, are often married and many have children.
Between 2007 and 2008, 33.5 percent of undergraduates nationwide were first-generation students, said Jane Glickman, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education.
For Ambough, displacement rather than dances, political strife rather than study groups marked the road to university.
According to Angela Zurowski, executive director of the Bridgeport-based International Institute of Connecticut, first-generation students are primarily immigrants and refugees.
"Their parents have endured all kinds of barriers so their kids can go to school,” Zurowski said.
His mother, worked for the Togo government had been stationed in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo. When violence erupted in the West African country she was recalled to Togo. All the while she feared for her sons’ safety. So she sent them to live with an uncle in Ghana while she stayed in Togo.
Then in 2005 a military coup d’état in Togo ousted Fambare Ouattara Natchaba, who as President of Parliament was supposed to succeed President Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had died of a heart attack. Riots ensued and several hundred people died. Ambough’s mother had to flee.
Soon after, the United States granted Ambough, his mother and brother asylum. They lived in Stamford for a time. Today Ambough’s older brother lives in Waterbury and his mother lives in Stratford.
Most first-generation students attend college for practical reasons, experts say.
“They think about how it will assist them in how to move up. I don’t think they spend a lot of time thinking that they’re representing their families,” said Elva Edward, director of student support services at .
Moreover, most first-generation students aren’t fresh out of high school. And many first attend community colleges to prepare them for four years at a college or university. Ambough attended the Housatonic Valley Community College for a few semesters to prepare.
“Community college students are often the first in their families to attend college and are an important demographic targeted for special attention through our involvement in Achieving the Dream and the Developmental Education Initiative, two national student success initiatives in which the Connecticut Community Colleges participate,” said Mary Ann Cox, assistant chancellor for Connecticut’s Community College System.
From Norwalk Community College to Naugatuck Valley Community College, there are departments devoted to transitioning high school students to college. Many incorporate federal and state programs such as WAVE (Workforce Achievers Value Education) and TRIO. All rely on grant funding.
First-generation college students aren’t the focus of articles such as “How to Decorate your Dorm Room in 10 easy steps.”
“Life gets in their way,” Edward said. “They are trying to juggle everything, transportation, babysitting. Sometimes they have to put life ahead of school. Our challenge is how to balance that yet remain committed to them getting an education.”
That’s certainly the case for Ambough, who recently married a dental hygienist. Though he dreams of going straight to graduate school, he worries that finances will get in the way. Still he’s learned to deal with setbacks.
“One of the hardest things was setting up goals and not reaching them,” Ambough said. “It was frustrating. I told myself I’d like to only take four years to do college. It’s taken longer. But I’ve learned to adapt.”
One obstacle to starting college was that he had to fulfill Connecticut residency requirement. Yet, he is innately determined and he was appalled at the notion of “sitting around doing nothing.” So he got his emergency medical technician dispatcher license.
Angelita Manning, director of refugee services for the international institute, worked with Ambough when he first arrived in Connecticut.
“The majority of our clients are single men. Many have young children. Their biggest limitation is always going to be English,” she said.
The international institute in Bridgeport helps newcomers find conversation partners to improve their language skills. It helps students such as Ambough get proper documentation, from residency papers to social security number.
“That’s hard,” Manning said. “The student could be from Eritrea -- so it’s not like we can just call the country and ask for what we need.”
Because of the help he received from Zurowski and others at the international institute, Ambough now volunteers there as a translator.
“It’s my sense of giving back to the community. They helped me so much and I know how it felt to come here,” he said.
Manning can relate. She herself is the first in her family to attend college. She graduated valedictorian from a Texas high school. Then got scholarship to Bryn Mawr.
“I was going to go to a technical school. But a counselor helped me to see the opportunities. Graduated well beyond my dream date of graduation. That was a blow I personally had to swallow. But I’m driven, I have my master’s degree as well.”
For many students, particularly first generation, there’s just a different mindset, said Ivan Diller, a clinical social worker with in Stamford.
“There’s definitely a sense of pride, they’re making their family proud,” Diller said, himself a first generation graduate. “But it’s more complicated than that. Because their parents didn’t go, it can also be viewed as an 'extra' as something nice, but not necessary. Something not needed to survive.”
That’s true, Ambough said, but for him college is in many ways his duty.
“I definitely feel a huge responsibility,” he said, a broad grin spreading across his face. "I know people who went to school but never reached that next level."