June 9, 2021

As a First-Gen College Student, High-Level High School Courses Made the Difference in my Success

By Kaiyre Lewis

Going into my junior year of college, I’ve realized something crucial to my success—particularly as a first-generation student: The courses you have access to before college matter. They made the difference in my drive to succeed in high school and my success afterward in college and my career.

Being a first-generation college student, a Black man, and someone who grew up in poverty, I feel out of place sometimes—and for a long time, college did not seem like a realistic goal in the face of so many out-of-school challenges. AP European history, including three-plus hours of homework a night, felt far from important while trying to figure out what I was going to eat and where I would lay my head next week. I was failing five classes. I was not on track to graduate. And I figured that all I had been shown was all I could be.

But I’m a kid who was fortunate enough to have an opportunity, and I capitalized on it. With a change of environment, I did a complete 180 as a student when I moved to Minnesota at 15 years old. The move changed what barriers were getting in the way of my academic success. I made the honor roll for the first time since I was in elementary school. By the time I graduated high school, I earned my IB certificate. I was accepted into the majority of colleges that I applied to. I was also a year-round athlete. I made the decision to challenge myself once I figured out school was something that I could do.

I went to a pretty diverse high school, and I had a wide range of friends. But none of my friends that looked like me were in my classes. Why weren’t they taking classes that prepare them for college rigor?

When I started taking high-level classes, I realized I was one of three students of color in the majority of my IB and AP classes. I went to a pretty diverse high school, and I had a wide range of friends. But none of my friends that looked like me were in my classes. They were smart, knew how to do school, and got good grades. So why weren’t they taking classes that prepare them for college rigor, helped them gain college credits, and skills to use in college and well beyond? Even if you are someone who does not intend on going to college. There is so much more you get from higher-level classes—note-taking, paper writing, studying, time management, and conversation skills that allow me to work optimally in a business setting. They are all skills that I’ve used as I navigate my way through college and my career.

Parents, teachers, and even friends need to be the ones to encourage our students to challenge themselves and take advantage of these opportunities. And the barriers to entry for these classes must be removed. Higher-level classes should become the standard—something that will benefit all students, not be made to feel exclusive.

Getting to college is one thing. There are so many resources for first-generation college students and students of color. But to get to college and be successful you have to push yourself—especially because you will face challenges that your other classmates will not. You can feel like you are sinking because you have no idea what you are doing in this unfamiliar place. No one has my story; I don’t have anyone else’s story—but we share experiences.

I can confidently say that I would not be on the path I am on today if I did not decide to challenge myself in high school and have the opportunity. What you do before college does matter, not because you need a sheet of paper saying you did something. It matters because when you are already feeling the pressures of the system that was not built for your success, you will have one less thing to worry about. When it comes time to sink or swim, you will swim. The pressure you will experience in that college classroom will be something you are already familiar with. You will have already experienced this overwhelming abundance of work in high school, and you will be glad. You will be glad that you are ready. College is new, but your mind is already callused. Higher-level classes should just become the standard, something that will benefit all students should not be made to feel exclusive.

EdAllies seeks to elevate diverse voices and foster a candid dialogue about education. While we provide our blog as a platform for EdVoices and other guest contributors, the views and opinions they express are solely their own.