How COVID-19 has changed us: First-generation college student Gabriel Castro

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

Second in a series.

Gabriel Castro, a 22-year-old first-generation immigrant student originally from Honduras, has a difficult time staying focused on remote classwork from home. A senior studying mass communications at the University of South Florida, he, like almost all college students, has been taking classes online since mid-March.

“It's hard to concentrate even though they (my family) definitely want me to study. The environment at home is not always easy to study or to work from here,” Castro says. “There's just a lot going on here that can be really hard to focus. Being told to do this and that and this can be hard too.” 

The stressors of pursuing his education intensified when he was furloughed temporarily from his job at a Ross Dress for Less store. The local Ross stores closed for two months from mid-March till mid-May because of the COVID-19 virus. Even though he gets financial aid, he wanted to help the financial situation in his family. Now that the store has reopened, he is trying to work as much as he can this summer to save money in case he is furloughed again.

“Ever since we came back, I've been trying to work as much as I can because, in my house, we went through like all our savings for this. I went through all my savings as well, so you know, I've been trying to chip in with as much as I can. But now I guess people aren't shopping [in stores] as much,” he says. 

Castro’s hours at work have been reduced compared to before COVID-19 because fewer customers are going into the store. 

“When we reopened, there was a huge amount of people coming in. It was a little scary, to be honest. Because it was like way more people than I expected to come. But now it's like slowing down again. So I'm not getting many hours.” 

On top of that, his dad and his sister were also furloughed from their jobs. Like Castro, his dad is working again but with fewer hours in his schedule. To face these economic challenges that resulted from COVID-19, some of his relatives applied for unemployment benefits, but not all qualified. 

“There's some of my family who don't qualify for benefits because, you know, you need a Social Security number for that, like, you know, I have that but you know, not everyone is so lucky,” says Castro. 

He says he is also aware of the risks to his own health and his family’s health by working in a store and potentially being exposed to COVID-19, especially in Florida, where the number of cases and deaths are some of the highest in the nation. But for him and his family, not working and earning money isn’t even a possibility. 

“You never know when [the virus] can come. It is a scary thought. But I just try to stay as safe as I can, you know, plenty of hand sanitizer, wash your hands for 20 seconds, you know as much as I can do. … I wish I didn't have to put that risk on myself. But like, honestly, there's like not really anything else I can do about it right now.”

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.

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:
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

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.