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Fighting for their college dreams, 1st-generation students face 'huge challenge'

Job market in freefall has compounded disappointment over delayed commencement.

While many class of 2020 graduates are crestfallen that the novel coronavirus has disrupted their commencement, the lost rite of passage this year is an especially big letdown for an estimated 400,000 college students who are the first in their families to achieve a diploma.

In interviews with ABC News, first-generation college students from low-income families across the country described an abrupt financial shock from COVID-19 that's threatened to upend their dreams.

A job market in freefall has compounded disappointment over delayed or canceled celebrations and instilled fear of financial failure. It's also complicating plans for thousands of first-generation college-bound students who are just beginning their journey to a degree.

"I personally don't see this as a big downfall, but it's just a huge, huge challenge," said DuJaun Kirk, a senior at Stevens Institute in Technology from East Orange, New Jersey, who this month will become the first in his family of seven to earn a bachelor's degree.

Just 21% of low-income, first-generation students make it to graduation within six years, according to an analysis of 2012-2017 data by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

"For those students who are being robbed right now of graduation, it's a huge moment," said Nicole Hurd, founder and CEO of College Advising Corps, the nation's largest nonprofit college access program.

"We are hearing students say mom and dad have lost their jobs, and now I have to think about employment because I might be the only steady income in my family," Hurd said.

For Sophie Kim, a Korean immigrant and first in her family to complete an undergraduate degree, the closure of her parents' nail salon makes chasing her dream of law school seem almost irresponsible.

"I thought, why am I going to put myself through more financial obligations with law school when my parents are really struggling on the deep end," Kim said. "(The salon) was our main source of income as a family. I tutor on the side, but it's not a full-time job by any means."

The new financial pressures are especially heavy for first-gen teens hoping to start college this fall.

"It's really just me trying to keep everyone afloat, and it's been tough," said 18-year-old Omar Quevedo-Catana, a senior at KIPP high school in Austin, Texas, who's set to enroll at the University of Richmond.

After his mother lost her house cleaning job of 20 years during the coronavirus lockdown, Quevedo-Catana had to take a full-time job at Walmart, becoming the sole breadwinner for his family of four, making just $12 an hour.

"I just got done paying for the apartment bill, which rang up to $1,018.48," he said.

Quevedo-Catana said his daily commute to work -- past piles of trash and graffiti in his Texas neighborhood -- offers constant reminders of why he's determined to start college in the fall.

"I definitely don't want my future family or my older brother's or little brother's family growing up around this kind of environment," he said.

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For decades, college has been a critical -- if often out-of-reach -- pathway to the middle class for low-income American families.

"A lot of people say, 'well, you don't really need college. Why can't these students just go and take on a blue-collar job?' -- and many will. But if you want to do something about income inequality, then you have to look at a college degree," said Richard Whitmire, author of "The B.A. Breakthrough," which chronicles progress for first-generation students in recent years.

Before the pandemic, the achievement gap was closing: more low-income, first-generation students were enrolling in colleges and universities nationwide. Now advocates worry some of that progress could be lost.

"I'm also concerned that with colleges and universities losing so much revenue, they will start to really target wealthier students or find other mechanisms to encourage full-paying students and limit their financial aid resources," said Dr. Marcia Chatelain, associate professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown University.

For many first-generation students already in college, the path to completing their degree is now strewn with new financial and emotional challenges created by the pandemic and recession.

"Some of them will just drop out. It's called 'summer melt.' They commit to a college and then they just don't go. Summer melt -- it's always been a problem, but now it looks like it's going to be a very big problem," Whitmire said.

Brown University sophomore Breanna Cadena is fighting to stay on course. She says taking Ivy League classes remotely is starting to take a toll.

"I don't know if I can do online classes again," she said in an interview from her family home in San Antonio, Texas. "It's just been -- I don't know how many times I've had to regather myself and refocus on why I'm doing this."

"I have an exam today. Last time I had an exam, I did it in the living room where basically my whole family was also, and I failed," she said.

In Maryland, 19-year-old Ja'Nayah Hines is wondering whether the cost of tuition is still worth it when classes at her Morgan State University have moved online.

"I work eight hours a day, 40 hours a week" on top of classes, she said in an interview after coming off her shift at a Silver Spring, Maryland, Target. "Now I have to figure out how to, you know, put it all together -- like classwork then plus work."

The juggling act has prompted Ja'Nayah, who dreams of becoming a surgeon, to think about delaying her college career. But she says she's staying the course, for now.

"Taking a semester off -- like -- if I take it off, and then like I don't feel like going back, I don't want to run into that," she said.

Chatelain said pushing pause -- or dropping out -- after a first year in college is a common experience for many first-generation students.

"Many of our first-generation college students are balancing multiple lives, and we don't necessarily have all of the structures in place on college campuses, to make sure that they're getting all of their needs met," she said.

Still, many students are determined to finish, no matter the cost.

"I have to make sure everything that I'm doing, I keep going so I can make it," said Shaffiou Assoumanou, the oldest of four and the son of West African immigrants. "When I make it, I can help the family, but also my siblings can look up to me, as a role model of someone who did it."

From a small Bronx apartment, Shaffiou is finishing his degree in advanced economics at Baruch College and working part-time as a researcher. When his dad recently lost work, he started helping to pay some family bills and care for his sister, Habbiba.

"My mom always tells me I'm her only hope," he said, "to basically make something for myself and for my family, and also for my community."

Even as they pursue their degrees under immense pressure to succeed, many first-generation college students show remarkable passion to give back to the community as the nation bounces back from the pandemic.

"It's like paying it forward and like paying it back to my parents," said Sophie Kim, who decided to take the leap to law school despite the need for more loans.

She believes the risk outweighs the reward of eventually being able to earn a higher income.

Omar Quevedo-Catana says he's confident COVID-19 won't delay his dream of becoming a college freshman this fall.

"Once I'm able to like expand my social ladder, I'll be able to bring along my parents, my mom and my father too," he said.

It's a drive to escape a minimum-wage existence to a better life, said Ja'Nayah Hines.

"I know in the end it will be worth it even though it's gonna be a long time from now," she said. "I know it will be worth it because I'll be doing something that I actually love to do."

And as the first-generation college graduates in the class of 2020 stare down a job hunt in a pandemic, DuJaun Kirk says it's all just another test to overcome.

"I don't have a full-time job right now and I'm pretty nervous about looking for one," he said, "but everything happens for a reason. If something happens, you can't sit around and just be upset. You got to figure out an alternative plan -- so I try to stick to that and keep the optimism alive."

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