Pandemic creates new barriers for students on pathway to higher education

The pathway to higher education has never been without barriers. But trying to break through them during a pandemic can crack an already fragile foundation.

“I’m doing everything for my family so they feel proud of me and I can keep going forward and get a good job, so I don’t end up in the fields,” said 19-year-old Maria Salvador, who spoke in Spanish during the interview, which was later translated into English.

Salvador is a first-generation college student attending Oxnard College in Ventura County, California.

Born in the central coast of California, Salvador’s parents came to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, and work in the fields. While long hours can reap little reward for migrant farmworkers, many work in hopes to pass down a better life for their children.

“They always tell me we have to keep studying, we have to keep learning and keep growing so that we can get a good job, so that we don’t suffer the way they suffered,” said Salvador.

But studying was made more difficult by the lack of access to a laptop and the internet during her final year of high school. While the schools gave Salvador and her brothers and sisters hotspots, she said they often didn’t work.

“It was always hard, because since I would use my mom’s cell phone, sometimes she would take it with her and sometimes I couldn’t do my homework,” the teen said.

And when the pandemic derailed the final months of her high school experience, Salvador and her sister worked in the fields to help their family.

“With the whole pandemic came a lot of financial hardships for families, where there wasn’t before,” said Sonya Zapien-Torres, the Tequio Youth Coordinator.

Zapien-Torres works to get these students from the fields to college.

“Help them navigate this system because a lot of them are first-generation. They may not understand what are the requirements to get to graduate high school, you know, what classes do I need to take?” said Zapien Torres.

She says virtual learning has made the process a lot harder.

“I would definitely want to be on campus. I wish the pandemic would end and everybody could get back to normal and go back to class. I wouldn’t be having all of these problems with my studying. It’s hard as it is,” said Salvador.

Heading into her first week of college, Salvador still did not have her own laptop and reliable internet, but the organization Mixteco Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) was able to secure her a device. Mixteco leaders say donations to the organization help to fulfill these needs.

It’s an issue not unique to just Salvador and made even more complicated with a surge in demand for laptops.

Around the country, the technology supply chain is struggling to keep up with the boom in demand. Research company NPD Group reports notebook computer sales grew 50 percent this summer.

Around the country, schools and families are dealing with shipping delays, limited selections, and higher-than-usual costs.

“Our students are not only falling behind but then, they’re getting graded for not showing up to these virtual classes where it’s really not even up to them,” said Zapien-Torres.

Oxnard College serves a population of 60 percent first-generation students. In a survey, they found 20 percent of respondents don’t have access to the internet, computers, or basic software programs. Despite challenges, they’ve been able to fulfill every laptop request.

Organizations like Mixteco are working to keep vulnerable students on the path to higher education.

“They see the struggles of their families; working in the field is not something they want to do. They know by personal experience the hard labor of working in the fields, so they want to, and they aspire to grow from that,” said Zapien-Torres.

While the job of advocates has grown more complicated, their efforts may matter more now than ever before.

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