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Beating the Odds

January 29, 2020

Alina stands next to a table with a white board in the background.

There was never any doubt that Alina Andrews was going to college. She was a straight-A student and valedictorian of her high school class—an achievement shared by three of her older sisters. “My parents really stressed education. I was always very focused. No nonsense,” says Andrews, whose family emigrated from Trinidad to Miami before she was born. Her parents co-own a small computer tech company, but neither attended college. “I think that was one of their regrets, not going. My mom always says, ‘You need to outdo your parents.’”

Despite having four college-educated sisters who she could turn to for advice on university life, she still faced many of the challenges that come with being a first-generation, limited-income student. The first hiccup happened when she received her acceptance to Johns Hopkins’ Biomedical Engineering program and discovered that she didn’t receive any financial aid. She was told her paperwork had not been submitted on time—though she was sure it had been—and there was nothing the university could do.

“I was devastated because there was no way I could afford to come here,” she remembers. “Just filling out those financial aid forms, I saw we could not afford it.”

Rather than decline the offer, she decided to go to Johns Hopkins for the Admitted Student Day and visit the financial aid office in person. She walked into the office of her adviser, Albertha Mellerson, and unexpectedly burst into tears.

Desperate to help, Mellerson discovered that Andrews had, in fact, submitted her paperwork. The error had been caused by a technical glitch, and the office was able to resolve the issue and offer Andrews a financial aid package: a full ride to Johns Hopkins.

Andrews joined the first cohort of the Hop-In program, and four years later, she still gushes about how the program changed her life for the better.

 

Hopping Into JHU

Launched in the summer of 2015, the Hop-In program invites 40 first-generation and limited-income students to live on campus for five weeks before the start of their freshman year. They spend that time taking summer courses, learning about the resources available at Johns Hopkins, and discovering Baltimore through off-campus field trips. With the university paying for travel, food, and housing, it’s a hard offer to pass up.

In addition to their regular academic advisers, Hop-In students are assigned success coaches for extra guidance on things like goal setting, connecting with faculty members, financial literacy, stress management, and seeking out internships. Hop-In coaches meet with students at least twice a month during their first and second years, and third- and fourth-year students meet with coaches about once a month. Participants are also paired with student mentors—usually first-generation third- and fourth-year students who went through Hop-In themselves—who can offer advice on everything from work-study opportunities to what to bring on the first day of class.

A growing number of colleges are adopting similar programs to help first-generation and limited-income students succeed in academia. Only 17 percent of first-generation students obtain a bachelor’s degree 10 years after their sophomore year of high school, compared to 42 percent of students who have at least one college-educated parent, according to a 2017 report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Among these students who do make it to college, many feel pressure to drop out and enter the workforce so they can help their families financially.

“For limited-income students, finances are really a barrier,” says Hop-In Director Candice Baldwin. “These students often work extra hours to pay their tuition, which in turn leaves less hours for them to focus on their academics. If their grades slip as a result, their families may question why they are at an expensive private school. Their families may say ‘Well, if you’re not doing well in the class, why are you there? Maybe you should go to a community college or take some time off.’”

Baldwin, who was a first-generation student herself, says many of the students she works with also struggle with imposter syndrome. Whenever they encounter a stumbling block, they feel like they did something wrong and question whether they really belong at Johns Hopkins.

“Hop-In students are highly motivated and among the best and the brightest at Hopkins. They have the capability to be successful but are often saddled with feelings of fear and doubt about their abilities,” she says.

The inaugural cohort of Hop-In students graduated last spring, and by all measures, the program has been a success. All 31 students either earned a bachelor’s degree or are still enrolled for the fall semester.   

 

How Hop-In Helps

“If I didn’t have Hop-In, I would go crazy. I wouldn’t know what to do,” says Andrews.“I don’t think I would have been successful at Hopkins without it.”

When she wanted to earn extra credits over the summer, Hop-In paid for two courses at universities in Florida. When she needed work experience, Hop-In helped her land an internship researching genetic deafness at a lab in Maine. And when she had problems in her personal life, Hop-In administrators were there to offer moral support.

She says the former director, Kristina Nance, was like a mother to her and the other students. “She had our numbers. She would check in on us. It’s nice to know there’s someone on campus who has your back.”

As an incoming first-year student, the summer program was her first chance to connect with students of different backgrounds and religions—an opportunity she didn’t have as the only black student at her small Christian high school.

“One of my best friends from Hop-In is Muslim; I had no interaction with [Muslim people] before,” she says. In fact, Andrews says all of her closest friends are people she met through the program. “There’s a bond that all Hop-In people have,” she says. “Because you went through similar experiences, you click.”

Andrews graduated with a BS in biomedical engineering last spring and is staying to earn her master’s. In August, she traveled to Hyderabad, India, with fellow biomedical engineering students to observe clinical procedures in hospitals and villages. Someday, she dreams of becoming the clinical director of innovation for South America and the Caribbean, an imagined job where she could use her skills to develop innovative health care solutions for underserved populations.

She believes programs like Hop-In are crucial for first- generation and limited-income students like herself, who simply need a little extra support.

“We’re fully capable, but we don’t have the resources that other people might have,” she explains. “I feel proud of myself that, despite all of these things working against me, I could still be successful and graduate with honors and go on to get my master’s.

“The odds are against me, yet I’m still here.”

– Lacey Ann Johnson