Tiffany Rodriguez, a first-year master’s student in public health, grew up thinking she would be a cardiologist. To her, entering the medical field was a way to help her community.
“Growing up in Kensington, seeing people who were homeless and people who were struggling with addiction was really a norm and is still a norm in Kensington,” Rodriguez said. “And I was just taught in my family to have empathy for people who are going through something regardless of their situation.”
To help her community, Rodriguez knew she would need to go to college. But she had a long road ahead of her: she was a first-generation student from one of Philadelphia’s most well-known neighborhoods.
From the 1800s through the late 1950s, Kensington was a thriving, working-class neighborhood, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. But the neighborhood started showing signs of trouble in the 1920s, as industry began declining. After racial tensions boiled over in the 1950s and 60s, mainly Black and Puerto Rican residents were left jobless in a neighborhood full of 30,000 abandoned houses, the Inquirer further reported.
The Kensington community people now think of, the one that the New York Times Magazine called “the Walmart of Heroin” in 2018, was born out of city neglect and the shuttered factories in the neighborhood which was perfect for drugs and crime to become rampant, the Inquirer further reported.
Sinh Taylor, a junior English major and Kensington native, feels the public’s negative perception of Kensington has certainly caused people to assume the worst of their neighborhood.
“A lot of people joke about how, if you live in Kensington, you’re either going to end up in prison or in the ground,” they said. “So [going to college] is kind of a spiteful way to prove people wrong.”
Taylor and Rodriguez are first-generation students, meaning they are the first in their families to go to college, according to the United States Department of Education.
Being a first-generation student is a significant achievement for Kensington community members. Three of Kensington’s public high schools — Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts, Kensington High School and the Kensington Health Sciences Academy — are all listed as needing intervention in terms of their college and graduation rates, according to their 2018-19 School Progress Reports from the district.
Devon Coletta, a 2019 education alumna, works as the Kensington High School site director for 12Plus, a school support nonprofit that works with Philadelphia schools to help students obtain post-secondary education. The organization works in KHS and Kensington Health Sciences Academy, hosting student centers and programming.
When Coletta began working at KHS, she had the misconception Kensington kids would want to leave the neighborhood as soon as they were able. But, in working with her students, she sees that many of them want to attend college in order to address issues they see in their community.
“They look to be social workers, lawyers, nurses, drug and alcohol counselors, and entrepreneurs who will bring resources back to their community in order to make it better,” Coletta said. “Despite it sometimes feeling like Philadelphia as a whole has given up on Kensington, the young people growing up there and graduating from the high schools in the community are focused on the solutions it needs, and more leaders in the city need to follow their example.”
Taylor hopes their academic success will disprove misconceptions about the community in Kensington, which they feel is warped by negative media.
“What everyone sees on the news is all like the violence and the drugs and all that stuff,” Taylor said. “They forget that there’s actually people who live here.”
People who aren’t from Kensington or don’t come to the neighborhood will never know how beautiful and vibrant it is, Rodriguez said.
“Kensington has so much potential, and the community has so much grit,” she said. “And I think it gets a really bad reputation, but that has more so to do with policy that has affected the community and Kensington and kind of had that ripple-down effect.”
Ebony Welch, a 2019 education alumna who serves as the Director of Community Engagement for 12Plus, sees the impact those policies have on the students she’s worked with in KHSA and KHS.
“Our students and their communities are subject to conditions that they did not ask for,” Welch said. “Many of our students are super connected to their community and want to see it change for the better.”
Welch feels that people underestimate the kids in Kensington because of people’s negative perception of the neighborhood.
“If those same people were to spend just a day in one of our partner schools, they would see all the hope our students have, all the celebrations, cultures, and traditions that students bring to our schools,” she said.
Rodriguez and Taylor faced many obstacles in their success as university students. Forty-seven percent of undergraduates in public four-year universities were the first generation in their families to attend college, but only 20 percent of first-generation students attain a bachelor’s degree within six years of entering a college or university, according to the Center for First-generation Student Success.
Taylor cited the culture shock as their greatest obstacle when coming to Temple.
“I went to a very small school where there was only like 170 [people] in my graduating class,” Taylor said. “And then going from that to a college where there were maybe 100 people in my class, it was a lot.”
Rodriguez also experienced this unease when she realized people assumed she knew how to navigate college, she said.
“As a first-gen student, I found that even like small things that I was expected to do or know how to do, I just didn’t know how to do, such as applying for FAFSA or just applying [to school] in general,” she said.
College presented a vocabulary-learning curve as well, she added.
“All of these terms that are just associated with college that I just didn’t know, and then it’s like you have to get past the jargon, and then figure out what things are, what the process is, how to go about it,” she said. “Usually after you explain your situation, [people] get it. But if you don’t, they’re just looking at you like, why don’t you know this?”
Paula Umaña, who serves as Director of Community Impact at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, said first-generation students are particularly vulnerable to barriers to basic needs, such as housing, food, and childcare. Hope Center research conducted in Fall 2019 concluded a lack of money exacerbated these issues, causing students to abandon their studies.
In light of all the challenges first-generation students face, Umaña said their success requires a lot of effort and hope.
“Being a first gen student requires a lot of stamina to be patient to be persistent to believe that there is help available, and believe that there are people willing to help,” Umaña said.
In addition to being the first in their families to attend college, Rodriguez and Taylor also made history by doing so during a pandemic.
While online learning wasn’t ideal for Taylor, they did manage to finish out the semester with a 3.8 GPA. Still, they took the summer semester off after they heard the sessions would be online as well. Now they fear that their ability to graduate might be impacted if the fall semester has to move solely online.
As a graduate in spring 2020, Rodriguez was devastated that the pandemic meant their class didn’t get to have a traditional commencement ceremony.
“Just walking across the stage, that was one of the primary motivating factors that I had to finish,” Rodriguez said. “I did undergrad for six years, because I worked a lot. And so that was my moment, like all my hard work paid off and it was just a very physical, real representation of that.”
Adjusting to student life in a pandemic was difficult, but Rodriguez and Taylor have witnessed the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate problems in their neighborhood. Kensington is experiencing COVID-19 in addition to ongoing crises such as high overdose rates, chronic homelessness, and economic disparity, Kensington Voice reported.
Taylor said the ongoing delays of trash and recycling pickup have caused her neighbors to band together and dispose of the trash themselves. She also noticed a decrease of illegal activity in her area, due to everyone’s increased efforts to care for the block.
Rodriguez sees how the pandemic is impacting residents with substance abuse disorder through her work as an intern at Prevention Point Philadelphia, a community organization that provides harm reduction and syringe services, as well as other health services. Their patrons had trouble getting vital medication and harm reduction treatment, and they lost access to the public hygienic spaces PPP hosts.
Oshay Columbus, the 12Plus site director at Kensington Health Sciences Academy, feels the pandemic has compromised her ability to communicate with her students and connect them with essential resources.
“I believe that our Black and Brown students deserve to have the same resources as other students in other affluent communities,” Columbus said. “I want my students and their families to know that there are people who care about them and want to see them succeed.”
“GRADUATION JUST MEANS EVERYTHING”
Despite everything, Rodriguez refused to be intimidated, and she graduated in May 2020 with her Bachelor of Science in Public Health. She was happily shocked when she made the milestone.
“My grandparents are illiterate — they can’t read and write,” she said. “My dad probably can’t read past fifth-grade level. My mom wanted to go to college, but she couldn’t. It just means everything — from all of the sacrifices that I’ve made and all the things I’ve tried to just get around and deal with.”
Rodriguez decided to continue her education, pursuing a Master of Public Health while interning at Prevention Point and working as an in-home caregiver.
She hopes her example inspires others, especially family members, to go after their goals.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t want people in my family to just go to college because they look up to the fact that I did it,” Rodriguez said. “I would just want them to look up to the fact that there was something I really wanted to do and I had obstacles and I didn’t just take no for an answer.”
Taylor also hopes to inspire family, especially their children.
“They’re a big factor because I wanted them to have something to look up to,” Taylor said. “So many kids today look up to celebrities and things like that. I wanted them to have a tangible person to look up to, and I wanted to be that for them, so they didn’t have to find one.”
Taylor hopes their graduation sends a positive message to the kids in their community, too.
“Whatever circumstances, be them outside circumstances or inside circumstances, or just because your parents never got to achieve what they set out to do, doesn’t mean you have to be held back by that,” they said. “You’re not your circumstance, you can be more than your circumstance.”