How COVID-19 has changed us: First-generation college graduate Yameeliz Fret

First-generation, immigrant, and international college students routinely face special challenges during their college experiences -- being away from family and friends, not having easy access to familiar culture, food, or community, and dealing with routine as well as sudden economic hardships.

As a result, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, first-generation college students are less likely to complete their degrees within six years, compared to other scholars. Many additionally have a hard time with the application and financial aid processes because their parents cannot guide them.

Throw in COVID-19 and their difficulties intensify in ways that others may not realize or even be able to imagine.

To help readers better understand their special circumstances, the Helios Education Foundation has asked 83 Degrees Media to tell their stories.

Here is the third of those reports by Angela Cordoba Perez, a senior studying mass communications and journalism at the University of South Florida.

Like many college students, Yameeliz Fret is facing extra difficult financial problems these past months since the outbreak of COVID-19.

She comes from a Puerto Rican background, and she is the first person in her immediate family to graduate from college. In the spring, she got her bachelor’s degree in sociology with a concentration in inequality and social justice at the University of South Florida in Tampa. For her, the biggest problem as a first-generation college student has been the lack of support from her family, who were not planning for her to study.

“It was just expected that I would graduate [from high school] and get married immediately. Like everyone else did. My great-grandma got married at 16. My grandma got married at 13. My mom got married at 20. So they just thought that I would do the same thing,” says Fret. “It [college] was expensive. So there was never a way for us to pay for it. That was never a thought, it was never a plan. And no one in Kissimmee [a Florida city near Orlando, where she grew up] went to school either, so it was just not even an idea.”

Fret had to cover most of her university expenses, and sometimes her mother helped her with groceries. Therefore, she worked at a local mall fulltime during any breaks she had to save money, and she was a resident assistant in her junior and senior years at USF, which helped her cover other expenses. However, her jobs were not enough and she had to finance her studies with student loans as well.

When the pandemic hit the economy, many family members lost their jobs, so she resolved to help them, making her financial situation tighter.

“But then things got really tight with my family because a lot of them lost their jobs for a little while. While you know, [the virus] was happening. So I was having to like help pay a couple of things for them.”

Besides her financial struggles, Fret says that the COVID-19 situation has been especially difficult because she misses the support system she had built while in college. Instead of going to her family, Fret used to rely on the relationships she had on campus whenever she had issues.

“The only thing that really helped keep me going was the support system that I established on campus. If I was having a breakdown or if I was having a bad day, and because it was on campus, I could just run over to my friend's room and I knew that they were there. Or I could call my RLC [Residence Life Coordinator, a person at the university-trained to help students find solutions to their problems] or whatever that situation looks like. We had 24-hour crisis counseling on the hotline, but if you wanted to just run into the office and do an emergency counseling session, they could also do that. So, if it wasn't for all of those things, I would not have succeeded,” Fret explains.

She was already dealing with personal issues and struggling with some of the final classes she had to take when USF closed its campus to avoid the spread of the virus. This was stressful for her because she could not see her friends often or use campus resources anymore. Additionally, she was about to graduate and her mother did not want her to get a job either.

Fret was able to land a job in Fort Lauderdale, FL, but moving there was difficult for her, especially in the middle of a pandemic. At some point, the COVID-19 situation helped her because she was released from her duties as a resident assistant and she had more time to move. Nevertheless, adapting to a new life under the current circumstances has been tough for her.

“It's hard being alone. I can't even see my coworkers. I haven't made friends down here because I moved in the middle of the pandemic,” says Fret. “I only went to my office like a couple of times at the beginning of the year, and that was it. So I know some of my neighbors, but I don't really know anyone. I haven't been able to explore the area, even if I could, nothing is open.”

While Fret knows she is fortunate to have secured a job during the pandemic, she is looking forward to the time when she can regain some sense of normalcy.

Additional stories in the 83 Degrees Media series on how first-generation, immigrant, and international college students are coping with changes brought on by COVID-19:Readers can help USF students through several funds designed to support everything from basic needs to scholarships to diversity initiatives, research, COVID relief, and more. To donate, visit the USF Foundation online.

This series of stories on COVID-19's impact on first-generation, immigrant, and international college students in Florida is made possible with funding from the Helios Education Foundation, a private foundation dedicated to creating opportunities for individuals in Arizona and Florida to succeed in postsecondary education, and from the Google News Initiative's Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

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Read more articles by Angela Cordoba Perez.

Angela Cordoba Perez is studying mass communications with a focus in journalism at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Growing up in Colombia, she developed an interest in writing and decided to pursue her dreams as a journalist. She has interned at WUSF Public Media and has written for the USF Oracle, the student newspaper. Even though she misses the mountain views in her home country, she is happy to use her diverse voice to tell stories about USF and the Tampa Bay Area. In her free time, she enjoys watching soccer and television, as well as calling her family and spending time with her friends.