Meet the Scholars

Beating the odds: A young mother and first-gen college student’s path to and through a top-tier state university

Denice Carpenter, a Dell Scholars Program graduate, is working on her masters’ of social work at UT Austin. The daughter of parents who didn’t have an education beyond high school, Denice never viewed college as an option until she joined Upward Bound — and found herself facing the prospect of life as a teen mom with no way to provide for her child.

It was up to me

When I graduated from high school, I was class speaker. I was also afraid. Of what? College. A new chapter. The unknown.

What did I know on that day?

  • That taking a deep breath didn’t relax me.
  • That I was a young mother, headed to the University of Texas at Austin.
  • That my Fort Worth high school, which primarily served students from a high-poverty, inner city background, hadn’t prepared me for the rigor and long hours of studying that college would demand.

And that it was ultimately up to me to improve the quality of life for myself and my daughter.

Ground zero – A low-performing urban school

What did my pre-collegiate education look like? Here’s one snapshot: On a typical day, my Spanish teacher would run out of the classroom because the students were screaming at her.  I could tell similar stories about a lot of classes.

The bigger problem with the school was that it taught to the test. The highest expectation for students was to pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test (TAKS) (since replaced by STAAR as the state’s highest-stakes standardized exam.) We would even have pep rallies to get everyone pumped up about passing TAKS. College wasn’t really on the radar.

Well, I managed to pass the TAKS. And I managed to graduate. And, I also managed to become a mother at age 16.

Given the statistical strikes against me – low-income family, low-performing school, teenage mom – how did I get to college? Two factors, really. One was joining Upward Bound. The other was, surprisingly, becoming a mother.

[quote]Ultimately up to me to improve the quality of life for myself and my daughter.[/quote]

Step 1: Making new friends, embracing new possibilities

When I first entered high school, college wasn’t something I thought about. I knew I was really good at acting; I wanted to be on the Disney channel. My parents hadn’t gone to college, so their advice was to find a job that paid well and eventually go into business on my own.

That started to change when I entered the Upward Bound Math & Science program at the start of high school. Upward Bound introduced me to other students who expected to go to college. Suddenly, the idea of me going to college one day opened up.

Step 2: Applying for food stamps; applying to college

Junior year of high school was when I gave birth. At first, I felt like I had no way of supporting myself or my daughter. I remember waiting for hours in the Health and Human Services building when applying for foods stamps and Medicaid. But those experiences — as well as the limited support I gained from the father of my daughter – had a positive effect. They made me realize that the only way for me to change my situation was to attend college. I was determined to make sure it happened.

So in the fall of my senior year, I decided to apply to University of Texas at Austin (UT). Somehow, in spite of the lack of organized support at my school, I managed to jump through all the hoops (“My SAT scores are due tomorrow? Okay, then!”) and get accepted.

Step 3: Finding my way on campus

Once I was on campus, I faced new struggles. As one out of over 50,000 other students, I had to become my own advocate to obtain the resources I needed for myself and my daughter. I was lucky to have support: I was a part of the Longhorn Scholars Program and a Dell Scholar. Both provided me with a number of benefits including scholarships, peer counselling, academic advising and more.  However, I still had to find childcare, financial assistance, and affordable housing—all this while meeting with my professors, teacher’s assistants, and classmates to keep up with school work.

My life today: Counselor, grad school student, charter school mom

I made it. Today, my daughter is a first grader at a high-performing charter school, and I’m on track to graduating with my master’s degree in social work. I know how lucky I am. The stats prove it. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, less than two percent of teenage mothers will attend college before the age of 30. According to the Pell Institute, “low-income first-generation students are more likely – 26 versus just 7 percent – to leave higher education after just one year than their peers with neither risk factor, and only 11 percent of them persist in their higher education and earn bachelor’s degrees.”

I’m trying to pay that luck back. I work as a Dell Scholar Ambassador, counseling other Dell Scholars – all of them from low-income families and most the first in their families to attend college – to help them stay the course to and through college.

Based on my own experience and on the available research, I know counseling from peers can make a difference. My vision as a social worker will be to create a program called COMPLETE, which will take a holistic approach to helping teen mothers and young girls build a community of learning. But I also know that we need more systemic solutions.

The work is beginning to take shape, with UT in the lead. [tweetable]I’m proud to see that progress, proud of where I’ve been, and proud of all the other first generation students who are working so hard to break free of the stats.[/tweetable] My hope is that, in the near future, universities, scholarship providers and others need to step up more systematically to ensure that, like me, other students and young mothers have a chance to benefit from higher education and to improve their opportunities in school and in life.