I walked away from "First Generation" haunted. The documentary, screened at Sacramento's downtown Esquire Imax Theatre earlier this month, chronicles two crucial years in the lives of four California teenagers from poor families who want to go to college. Husband and wife filmmaking team Adam and Jaye Federson recorded their young subjects' difficult quest on camera.
We meet them in their junior years of high school. Jessica Chevallier attends Kern Valley High in the rural hamlet of Lake Isabella. She earns close to a 4.0 grade-point average and wins a fistful of academic awards when she graduates.
Dontay Gray, from Los Angeles, is the son of a single mother who's a recovering drug addict. A football player, he gets up at 5:30 every morning to take three buses and two trains to Jordan High School in Watts. He's hoping for a football scholarship. He finally makes the dean's list in his senior year.
Keresoma Leio, the son of immigrants from American Samoa, lives with 10 members of his extended family in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment in Bellflower. His father is dead. He sleeps on a couch in the living room, his mother beside him on the floor.
Cecilia Lopez is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her mother works in the fields outside of Bakersfield. Her father was deported halfway through her junior year. Nine family members share a small rundown house. She is a top student, has a very high SAT score, is a champion cross-country runner and dreams of going to UCLA.
The two girls are the most promising. Jess, who works as a waitress at a small diner throughout high school, expects no help from her recently divorced parents. She's eligible for the University of California, but settles for a community college in her hometown instead because she's convinced she can't afford a four-year college.
Cecilia ends up moving out of her mother's home and moving in with a friend's family. The family moves to Tennessee shortly before Cecilia is about to graduate. After a short time in Tennessee, she returns to Bakersfield and, at 17, is on her own when she graduates from high school with honors. Instead of applying to UCLA, she settles for California State University, Bakersfield, where she is offered a full ride on a track scholarship.
Both girls are tripped up by the sticker price of college, not just the $20,000 to $30,000 annual costs for tuition, room and board, books, et cetera, but even the $50 application fees. No one tells them that the fees can be waived for low-income applicants like themselves, that, as first-generation college students with good grades and high SAT scores, they can get scholarships, fee waivers, grants and loans.
Dontay does not get a football scholarship. Instead he receives the maximum aid amount available to needy students, more than $20,000, to attend California State University, Sacramento. Unlike the other three students featured in the film, Dontay gets one-on-one attention from his high school counselor.
When his financial aid package is delayed and he's about to miss the deadline for securing a spot in the dorm, his counselor gets on the phone with Sac State authorities to straighten things out. The ratio of students to counselors in most public high schools is an astounding 800 to 1, the film notes.
Dontay was at the screening at Imax in downtown Sacramento. He won't get out in four years because he had to take some remedial courses but he has earned a 4.0 grade-point average so far. The former high school football star is a fashion design and marketing major. At the screening, he wore an outfit, jeans and a vest, he designed and made himself.
Keresoma got a grant for California State University, Long Beach, but flunked out after his first semester. Poorly prepared, he had no one to help him transition to college. He now attends a community college, studying music engineering.
Jessica finally got a scholarship that allowed her to give up her waitress job. She's enrolled in the nursing program at the local community college full time and doing very well.
Cecilia is a junior at California State University, Bakersfield, on pace to get her BA next year. The Federsons think she will be the first of the four to earn a four-year college degree. She plans to apply to law school at UCLA, to fulfill her dream of becoming a Bruin.
What first-generation students lack besides money, is information and a mentor to guide them through the complicated process of applying, not just for college, but for student aid, grants, scholarships and loans. To find out how to help, visit www.firstgenerationfilm.com.