Learning the Language of Higher Education

By: Sebastian Gomez 

Blog Images - ALLF Fellows 2019 Sebastian Gomez

In 1995, my family and I immigrated to the United States from Colombia – quickly settling in one of the country’s most culturally and linguistically diverse regions, Queens, New York. I attended New York City public schools and worked to gain the most from my education. As a first-generation immigrant, I grew up speaking multiple languages: Spanish at home with my family, and English, which dominated all other types of interactions and communication.  However, as an immigrant in any new country, you also learn to pick up other dialects you never knew existed.

During my senior year of high school, words such as “Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)” and “statement of purpose” slowly entered my lexicon. “Early decision” and “early action,” terms that seem synonymous to a nascent language learner, could mean the difference between having a choice in where you would attend college, or settling for the first college you thought would take you. Such linguistic fluency is essential for college readiness, where students thrive in the academic and social environment on campus.

Like most students learning a foreign language, I sought someone who could help me understand and decipher it. With someone well-versed in the language of higher education, I could navigate applications and systems unfamiliar and foreign to me. I depended on my college counselor, a reliable translator, to walk me through these texts and make sense of deadlines and question fields on the Common Application. I slowly became fluent enough to engage with supplementary applications and the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile to apply for financial aid. My proficiency of this language was validated by my first college acceptance letter.

However, it wasn’t long before I had to master an entirely new dialect of higher education. As I walked through the gates of Harvard, my glossary needed to expand to include words such as “major declaration”, “study abroad”, “summer internships”, and “recruiting”. Each word carried a new sense of urgency. The longer it took for me to understand its meaning, the greater the divide between me and my classmates who had grown up speaking the language.

Many of my peers at Harvard spoke this dialect as their mother tongue, without shouldering the burden of being the first in their family to access a four-year college education. Wielding cultural capital and broad professional networks, their parents seamlessly passed on their fluency to the next generation. Meanwhile, I relied on academic advisors and offices at Harvard  to help me break down these words into parts I could comprehend. For example, Harvard College’s campus resources provided greater clarity on the purpose and advantages of attending “office hours,” claiming time and space in an elite institution that wasn’t historically designed for my success.

But what are the most critical parts of the language of higher education that help students flourish on college campuses?

As a former foreign language learner, I couldn’t comfortably express my thoughts in a new language like Portuguese without having had both sustained practice and the immersive experience of living in Brazil. The same logic applies to college readiness. Take one example recently reported by the New York Times, where a working paper by Goodman, J., Guratz, O., Smith, J. (2018) indicates students who took the SAT more than once were more likely to enroll at a four-year college than those who only took it once. However, exposure to college doesn’t start or end with an admission test.

Drawing from research in the field, the College and Career Readiness and Success Center at American Institutes for Research (ccrscenter.org) compiled a set of predictors and indicators state and local agents can use to help them promote college readiness among students. Here, I highlight three key ways schools, counselors, and parents can provide students to begin exposure to college before the time to apply is upon them:

  1. Access to rigorous instruction. For many students, IB and AP classes are their first foray into college-level coursework. In addition, dual-enrollment opportunities provide students with the chance to experience college courses while still having support structures available to them in high school. My experience taking AP classes helped prepare me to handle the challenge of Harvard’s curriculum.
  2. Completion of a FAFSA. For Pell-eligible students, completing the FAFSA allows them to access federal grants and subsidized loans that can enable them to afford a college education. Imagine using a foreign language–perhaps Greek or Chinese–to discuss a nuanced situation with a customer service representative, and you may understand how the FAFSA overwhelms students. The perceived complexity of the application leads many students to simply not file it. I remember my own experience being the first person in my family to file the FAFSA, where I relied on forums and FAQs to make sure I filled out fields correctly.
  3. Participation in summer or transition programming before the start of college can also promote a student’s college readiness. Students benefit from the chance to arrive early to campus and take classes that strengthen their academic skills. These programs help students remedy knowledge gaps less common among more privileged peers from elite high schools. Summer programming can also encompass work-based learning opportunities for high school students. This provides the foundation for career exploration and interests they will further pursue in college.

Ultimately, fluency in the language of higher education is essential for college readiness. As students immerse themselves in valuable experiences promoting college readiness, they improve their ability to navigate the college application process and the academic institution itself.

Undoubtedly, the supports first-generation and Latinx college students need to understand the higher education landscape extend beyond the three highlighted here. While I developed the prowess to speak the language of higher education, it was refreshing to see my two younger brothers successfully navigate this foreign landscape without having to figure it out on their own. Although my future children will speak the mother tongue necessary for college readiness, I hope education professionals ensure opportunities for the broader Latinx community to engage in college preparation, since it is paramount to our advancement in this country.


About Sebastian Gomez

Sebastian brings his passion for social justice to many areas of the education sector including classroom teaching, advising students, and conducting education research. He currently works at the intersection of research and practice engaging with diverse stakeholders on projects related to school turnaround, work-based learning, and student post-secondary success.