First-gen college journeys: How teen mother Denice Carpenter remains focused on college graduation

As the lead program manager for the Dell Scholars Program, the foundation’s college persistence and completion program, I’ve been asked countless times why so many first-generation students like those in our program drop out of college. The simplest way to explain the root causes of their issues?  Life happens—outside a classroom.

In many cases, motivated students who are academically prepared for college life head into their first year of higher learning with the additional stress of outside distractions that can impact their ability to succeed in school.  Then for upperclassmen, like Dell Scholar Ambassador Denice Carpenter, unexpected circumstances sometimes arise that further compound the obstacles students face, thus requiring even more extraordinary support to complete college.

Extending beyond financial support, we also provide ongoing services and assistance to address all of the emotional, lifestyle, and financial challenges that may prevent our scholars from completing college – from dealing with stress, to getting out of debt, to tackling substance abuse or child care if life circumstances should require it.

Meet Denice Carpenter. The beginning of her story is one that’s all too familiar for first-generation college students:  She’d been thrust into adulthood, becoming a mother at age 16. After demonstrating her exceptional determination and ability to overcome hardships, this Dell Scholar set out to complete her degree and create a better future for her daughter and herself—even though more struggles were ahead. Here are the lessons Denice wants to share with college students:

[quote]Ask for the help you need. Keep pushing forward. Always remain focused on the end goal.[/quote]

Denice’s story

I’ve learned a lot about life while in college.  I’ve learned that life happens; you have to roll with it.  Ask for the help you need.  Keep pushing forward.  Always remain focused on the end goal. Perhaps the lessons themselves seem simple.  I assure you that the process of learning them was anything but easy.

My parents didn’t attend college, so I am a first generation college student.  My Fort Worth high school, which primarily served students from a high-poverty, inner city background, didn’t prepare me for the academic demands of college.  And, unlike the majority of Dell Scholars, I started college while raising my two year old daughter.

Once I arrived at my new school, the University of Texas at Austin (UT), there were new challenges every day. 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. For most of my first two years of school, my daughter stayed with my family in Fort Worth during the week so I could focus on my studies.  It pained me to be away from her, but I knew that completing my degree would mean a brighter future for both of us.

I was fortunate to have support at UT: 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 was still responsible for childcare, financial assistance, and affordable housing—all while keeping up with my school work and meeting with my professors and classmates.

In my junior year things were going well for me and my then four-year-old daughter.  I had just started the first semester of my teaching internship; I was taking five classes.

As the weeks passed, I was increasingly fatigued and drained.  I soon found out that my exhaustion was not only due to a lack of sleep; I was pregnant with my second child.  The news left me feeling scared and alone, and I knew this would make obtaining my degree even more difficult.

Finally after weeks of keeping it to myself, I built up enough courage to tell someone. [tweetable]I reached out for help.  It was the best decision I have ever made. [/tweetable] My family, professors and Dell Scholars were there to support me, and I am proud to say I completed my degree while raising my two beautiful daughters.

As a Dell Scholars Ambassador, I offer students advice and insight based on my own experience:  Even if unexpected circumstances arise or a few poor choices are made or there’s uncertainty around the future, ask for help.  If you don’t have all of the answers, don’t try to solve all of the problems yourself.  Explore your options.  Discover the resources and supports available to you.  Keep your eye on the prize.  Reaching your goal and graduating will be one of the best things you’ve ever done for your future. It was for mine and my daughters’.

A Dell Scholar Ambassador, graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin and mother of 2, Denice Carpenter was raised in Fort Worth, Texas.  While currently pursuing her master’s degree in social work, she has the privilege of serving as an AmeriCorps member with Communities in Schools of Central Texas.  Denice currently works with at-risk youth at Manor Middle School helping them to reach their goals.