Breaking the cultural barriers to college


The first in her family to go to college, Jaye Fenderson wanted to help others break through that barrier. But instead of churning out just another research paper about the benefits of a college education, Fenderson decided that a documentary would be a good medium to get the message across.

The result is First Generation, a film she and her husband, Adam, have been introducing across the country, including a recent showing here in Indianapolis.

Partly financed by the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, the film follows several students in their attempts to break the poverty cycle and make it to college. A daughter of migrant field workers, for example, attends college but might have gone to a better school if she had the level of support a middle-class family could give.

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The cultural barriers to college are well-documented, including the lack of awareness of scholarship options and the heartache of leaving family and friends for the unknown.

First Generation touches on another challenge that can hurt children's educational achievement: fathers who are missing in action.

The demands of college can be difficult enough for many first-generation students. They're doubly hard for students who don't have support from home or who struggle with the emotional pain of an absent father.

Jay Height, director of the Shepherd Community Center in Indianapolis, who has worked for 17 years to break the multi-generational poverty cycle, said it's hard to separate the issue of poverty from the problems posed by absentee fathers.

Shepherd has several first-generation college graduates from Indianapolis' Eastside neighborhood in key leadership positions. Height sees the need for a cultural shift in the form of a clear call for fathers to engage and re-engage in the lives of their children, including helping them succeed in school.

"To get dads involved in the lives of their kids-that really is an inoculation against the damage or illness that is so prevalent among at-risk young people," Height said. "Do we need more guidance counselors? Yes, but that's just dealing with the symptoms. We need dads who are engaged in the lives of their kids."

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.


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