How Bladen County is giving first-generation college students a head start

By Ivey Schofield

Janet Rivera got good grades at the high school she attended in rural, southeastern North Carolina. But to become the first generation in her family to attend college, she needed some guidance. 

That’s why Rivera decided to take college-level classes at Bladen Community College as part of her high school’s dual-enrollment program. She graduated in 2020 with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. 

“Education – that’s something nobody can take away from you,” Rivera said. 

Janet Rivera, who attended high school in Bladen County, is now a student at N.C. State University.

Bladen County, known for its blueberries and flat land, has among the highest rates in North Carolina of potential first-generation college students. 

This year, nearly 70% of recent high school graduates in Bladen could be the first in their family to attend college, according to data from Carolina Demography, a program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that analyzes population data. 

Surrounding counties also saw high rates of prospective first-generation college students, with Scotland at 59%, Columbus at 67% and Robeson at 71%, the data show. 

“As a school system, we are committed to supporting them in those efforts, so they can be successful,” Bladen County Schools Superintendent Jason Atkinson said of potential college students. “[The program] really makes a significant impact not only on their future, but also financially.”

About 18% of Bladen County residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to 2020 U.S. Census results. Surrounding counties have even lower rates, with Scotland at 15%, Robeson at 14% and Columbus at 13%. 

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Many first-generation college students – or students whose family members have not obtained more than high school diplomas or associate’s degrees – face obstacles in trying to earn a bachelor’s degree. 

They may not know how to research the schools that could offer them the best opportunities, how to apply for financial aid, how to communicate with professors or how to complete their classwork on time. 

And then there’s student loan debt, along with the risks of leaving their families, who might need the income they provide. 

“Going to college,” Rivera said, “in some ways is a privilege.” 

‘It was the push I needed’

Rivera’s father works in the air conditioning industry, and her mother works in agriculture. 

Rivera wanted to be a model for her now-16-year-old brother, so she joined the dual enrollment program at Bladen Community College, taking a couple of college-level courses each semester to challenge her and give her a leg up with applying and thriving at a four-year institution. 

With the free program, Rivera said she became a better writer and test taker. She got accepted at N.C. State University and is now studying political science and business administration.

Rivera hopes to go to law school to eventually practice immigration law – helping people like her parents when they come to the United States. 

“I’m able to have a better opportunity because of their sacrifices,” she said. “It wasn’t for nothing.” 

Women with bachelor’s degrees earn about $630,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates, according to the U.S. Social Security website. Men with bachelor’s degrees earn $900,000 more. 

Devin Bowen, an automotive engineering student at North Carolina A&T University, called the dual enrollment program at Bladen Community College “a gateway opportunity.”

Bowen, like Rivera, is also a first-generation college student. At first, he was hesitant about participating in the program, but Dr. Cierra Griffin, the college and high school programs coordinator, helped convince him. 

Throughout his time at the community college, Bowen learned from Griffin how to communicate with professors, how to manage his time and how to get the help he needed. 

“It was the push I needed,” said Bowen, a self-proclaimed procrastinator. 

Bladen County has the highest four-year high school graduation rate in the Border Belt region at 91.5%, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Scotland has a rate of 91%, Robeson has 88.5% and Columbus has 82%. 

Giving students every opportunity

To be eligible for the free dual-enrollment program at Bladen Community College, students must be in their third or fourth years of high school with an unweighted GPA of at least 2.8.

Once Griffin identifies who is eligible, she meets with them and their parents to discuss enrollment. She asks the students about their desired majors and careers. She also conducts research on universities that offer those majors and the jobs within those career fields. 

“I make sure I take care of every little detail,” Griffin said. 

Most 17- and 18-year-olds don’t know what they want to do with their careers. But some students, like Cheyenne Lewis, already do. 

Lewis graduated with a high school diploma, an associate’s degree of arts and an associate’s degree of science. In May, she graduated from the University of North Carolina – one year early. 

“Money was a big issue and barrier for me when thinking about colleges and universities in high school,” Lewis said. “It was a free opportunity to complete half of a bachelor’s degree and half of my dental hygiene degree.”

Lewis said she felt connected to Griffin, who helped point her in the right path that Lewis hopes will eventually lead her to dental school. “I was very grateful to have her, a person of color and a woman who could guide me and believe in me,” she said. 

A majority of the nearly 1.2 million prospective first-generation college students in North Carolina who graduated high school this year were people of color, according to Carolina Demography

“We want to do everything we can to get them every opportunity possible,” said Atkinson, the Bladen County Schools superintendent. “Cultural background, financial status, religion – none of that stuff should matter.”

Danae McMillan, a current nursing student at N.C. A&T, was also grateful that she could go to Griffin with her struggles – inside and outside the classroom. She hopes every high school one day has a similar dual-enrollment program for free. 

The key, McMillan says, is the people who run it. “As long as you have a really good adviser, you’ll be fine,” she said. 

Dr. Cierra Griffin helps first-generation college students preparefor four-year institutions in a dual-enrollment program
with Bladen County high schools and Bladen Community College.
Photo by Ivey Schofield

Griffin was recently promoted to director of advising and retention for Bladen Community College. She’ll train professional advisers, not just faculty, to assist students with their journey through higher education. 

“I believe that whatever a student tells us, it is our job to help them reach that goal, even if their goal is outside of what we can do here,” Griffin said. 

Even though Rivera loves being in Raleigh, she has considered eventually coming back to Bladen County. It’s where she was born and raised. It’s where her family is. 

And Rivera has ideas for Bladen County’s future – for it to “flourish in more ways than I can see,” she said. 

Follow Ivey Schofield on Twitter: @SchofieldIvey