When College and Poverty Intersect

Cambridge. King's College Library (Interior)

If I were in a school or classroom right now, I’d throw out whatever lesson plan I had ahead of me and pull in Lower Income, Higher Ed a documentary in the Breaking Ground series from WAMU’s Kavitha Cardoza.

Throughout the doc, Cardoza talks with DC high school grads who are most, if not all, the first in their families to have headed to college after growing up in poverty. The stories are poignant, moving, and illustrative of the cultural, economic, and emotional issues facing students making the transition from poverty to higher ed. I want to use this doc with a few audiences.


Any teacher who has ever prepared a student for college or university life needs to hear the stories Cardoza has captured. They shine a light on what happens after so many high school students leave our care and cross the threshold toward which we’ve been helping them move. Most importantly, these stories help to remind us that high school graduation is only one milestone of educational attainment. Yes, it inceases the likelihood of economic success, but it does not ensure the social capital so necessary to help first-generation college students navigate post-secondary life.


Cardoza’s work here captures the stories of students torn between “survivor’s guilt” and the opportunities they’ve worked to secure for themselves. She chronicles worries and concerns these students face, which they likely never described to the parents. And she talks about the importance of support structures back home when students struggle with the college transitions. When a student becomes a first-generation college student, their parents become first-generation college parents, and that brings with it a whole other set of needs.

Students in Poverty

Perhaps the most obvious audience for the doc are those students following in the footsteps of those Cardoza features in her reporting. If it does nothing else (and I think it can do so much more), Lower Income, Higher Ed can give much-needed permission for these students to seek outside help, to contact community groups, and to realize they aren’t in it alone.

Students not in Poverty

Maybe the least likely to be among the intended audience of this piece, students who grew up outside of poverty stand to gain a great deal from listening to stories likely wound up in the lives of those students sitting next to them in class. Many of the students Cardoza interviews for the doc are also students of color recounting their time on predominantly white campuses. I found myself wishing she would talk to the white students in these largely midwestern schools and say, “What could you do to better understand those who might enter this space with less comfort than you?”

This is my one frustration with the documentary. While she does a fine job of helping her listeners understand the needs of and supports available to these students, I wish Cardoza had shined more light on the institutional shifts that would help shift the burrden from students coming out of poverty and onto colleges and their faculty. While the work of support organizations featured in the program is to be appreciated, perhaps universities could do more to be welcoming places of learning in addition to their financial support. Poverty, as it turns out, is about more than money.

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