By Patricia Roberts
Managing Director, AllianceBernstein L.P. and
Chair, College Savings Plans Network Corporate Affiliates
August 24, 2015

Forward movement by others can inspire us in countless ways to get moving in a direction we’ve longed to go. This time of year, it seems fitting to recognize first-time college students as an inspiring example of forward movement – as they embark on pursuit of higher education.

For students for whom going to college was neither assumed nor easily envisioned — students, for instance, with significant economic challenges and/or in families where no parent had ever attended college — decisions of whether to even get on the college preparatory track, let alone pursue a degree after high school, may likely have been considerably more complex. For these students, heading off to the first day of college is all the more impressive a feat. Selecting the color and style of a “bed in a bag” ensemble for one’s very first dorm room would not have been among the toughest choices these students faced over the past few months.

The Challenge of Getting UnStuck 
For students from low-income families, the summer months may have included endless hours of serious re-consideration of the viability of decisions to attend college, particularly given the loss of time in the workforce and the emotions of separation. As they seek to move forward, their minds may also be filled with concerns associated with temporarily stepping away from families who very much have grown to rely upon them financially or otherwise. As they prepare to take this step forward, these students may likely be experiencing a painful tug of war between the desire to open doors through the furtherance of their education and the desire to remain home and continue to be of support to family members overwhelmed with the challenge of economic survival and the wide range of associated issues.

…and Getting There
Beyond this, on a practical level, while these students have successfully gotten into college, they may be facing a challenge this very month of finding a way to get to college. We don’t often think of students who worked so hard to get admitted facing a last-minute hurdle of getting there with all their belongings. We forget there are students whose families do not own a car (or a reliable enough car to make the trip), have a budget for round-trip gas money and tolls, and/or a cent to spare for a one-way train, plane or bus ticket.

The Value of Re-framing and Taking a Fresh Look at One’s Cargo
Having been one of these students, I am passionate about offering encouragement to young people who lack the supports that many of their peers enjoy and/or the social or cultural capital others their age may have garnered. While in no way discounting the challenges they’ve experienced, I remind them of the value of “reframing” their life’s circumstances – by viewing themselves as “differently resourced” (versus disadvantaged). In doing so, I encourage them to refrain from focusing on what they are lacking and instead, to recognize the priceless attributes they do possess — which will accompany them to college and beyond, no matter what route they take to get there.

Their precious cargo includes:

•    Resilience
•    Resourcefulness
•    Motivation
•    Determination
•    Ability to multi-task, problem solve and outwork others

Lastly, these students often benefit from a gentle reminder that they are not traveling alone. Those, beyond their family members, who encouraged them along the way, such as trusted teachers, advisors, coaches, or organizations like the Posse Foundation or Upward Bound, are very much with them and should continue to be leveraged at this juncture and at other points in the journey.

Inspiration for Us All

As first-generation-in-college and low-income students take a courageous step into unchartered territory this month, may they serve as a reminder to us all that the most trying of experiences can often leave us with unexpected gifts of incredible strength and wisdom. May they also remind us that reframing is a useful tool and most importantly, that:

Our present circumstances need not define or limit us

While we applaud all first time college students this month as they move forward toward their dreams, let’s offer a special shout out to those students whose paths were not assumed and who may have had a more difficult time getting and staying on route.

About the Author:
Patricia Roberts is a Managing Director at AllianceBernstein where her sole focus is on Rhode Island’s CollegeBoundfund, one of the nation’s largest advisor-sold college savings program with over $7 billion in assets under management. She has been involved in nearly every aspect of the college savings arena for more than 15 years as an attorney, product manager, state relationship manager, passionate advocate, public speaker and as a mom, saving for her son Benjamin’s post-secondary education. She is chair of the College Savings Plans Network Corporate Affiliates and also plays an active role on other committees including Media Relations, Federal Initiatives, Multi-Cultural Outreach and Legal and Regulatory Affairs.