Carlos Carmona and some of his fellow graduates class, back in 2013.

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At Philadelphia Futures’ graduation celebration Wednesday, more than 100 students will be sharing their milestones, one by one. The high school grads will tell the expected 500 guests where they’re headed to college. The college grads will tell everyone what degree they received, and what they plan to do next. Carlos Carmona is of the latter pack. He graduated from Penn last month, and has already started working on his masters of public health at the university.

It’s been a long road for Carmona, a Feltonville native and Northeast High alum. Neither his mother, who works at a senior care facility, or his father, who works as a private driver, attended college. Carmona said that he struggled to communicate his admissions goals with them when he was a teen, and his college demands after he enrolled.

First generation students, or first-gens, encounter “social and cultural challenges, from families where going to college is not the norm,” explained Philadelphia Futures Executive Director Sara Woods.

Philadelphia Futures focuses on providing supplementary resources to low-income first-gen students like Carmona. The nonprofit mentors roughly 600 students each year, supplying academic support, extracurriculars, SAT prep, college tours and counseling. Woods calls their annual graduation event “a reflection and a celebration of their very hard work and persistence.” The organization has been throwing these events since 1994. This year’s event is at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Convention Center.

First-gen experiences have been attracting more attention nationally, and their activism around the country has spurred networks, summits and conferences. Reports show that first-gen students face challenges when acclimating to college life, navigating stigmas, financial pressures and family expectations.

Ann-Therese Ortiz with a Philadelphia Futures scholar last year. This is Ortiz’ last graduation event after 17 years with the nonprofit. Credit: Philadelphia Futures

Pre-college programs director Ann-Therese Ortiz said in Philadelphia, “those barriers move across the spectrum of things. Our schools are underfunded and under-resourced.” Low-income students may be charged with helping their parents cover bills and expenses. Then there’s living and studying in communities plagued by gun violence. “They’ve got to find ways to stay safe, while dealing with the traumas or losing a friend or always being on alert,” she added.

This will be Ortiz’s last graduation with Philadelphia Futures, after 17 years with the nonprofit. She said bringing both high school and college grads has been key: “It acknowledges this next step in the journey, but it also becomes aspirational, because they see college students graduating together.”

Philadelphia Futures scholar Carlos Carmona at his 2013 high school graduation. Carmona just graduated from Penn. Credit: Paola Nogueras / Philadelphia Futures

Carmona said a counselor at Northeast High really pushed him to get involved with Philadelphia Futures. The program does outreach in schools, encouraging qualified applicants to apply. He recalled that his parents were at first skeptical about sharing the tax information needed to confirm their household income, but eventually they relented, and he applied in time to participate.

“I wasn’t really— I’m not still really— comfortable with asking people for help,” said Carmona. “I thought that was me sort of being dependent on someone, and that if they helped me I’d have to repay them in some capacity. That was the mindset.”

With guidance from the program, he started to pursue everything he’d need to matriculate at a university. He viewed it as “a solo journey.” He’s grateful that his parents were able to share more tax information when it came time to submit FAFSA apps, but he understood that his college apps, filing the FAFSA forms and seeking financial aid were all on him. It was tough to balance. Between his AP courses, his test prep, applications and even Philadelphia Futures programming, he was stretched thin.

“There’s a sense of value of education on my parent’s side, but there’s also this push to stay with your family, to take care of [family obligations] and that school could wait,” he said. “It made it hard to be flexible.”

His parents expected him to take responsibility for cleaning up the house, Carmona recalled. “Whenever I’d go home, the first thing I’d encounter was the dirty dishes… There would be clothes all over the floor,” he continued. “It was as if chaos just ran through the house.”

When January of his senior year rolled around, he needed a gig. His sister connected him to a restaurant job downtown. Carmona said his household responsibilities weren’t scaled back any. If he had to work, then the dishes needed to be washed before he left. When he reminded his parents of what he was juggling, he said that it didn’t seem to really help.

“My mom and dad would say, ‘You’re always complaining. Why don’t you just do what you have to do?’” he remembered. “That in itself took a huge toll, especially mental, on me. There was no way to make my parents at ease or make them understand that there was a lot at stake. It was that rollercoaster that I kind of had to ride along and have college as my exit.”

Ortiz explained that Philadelphia Futures prepares students to compete with classmates who haven’t had to manage the socioeconomic challenges that first-gen students do. “Our kids, who often don’t have a safety net, often have to work twice as hard to get a place of parity and equity with their peers,” she said.

Research shows that Carmona’s experience is common. And many first-gen students feel “breakaway guilt” and sense pressures to translate the culture and demands of university to their families.

Carmona said his parents’ expectations carried on through college. “I had to tell my mom, ‘I love you all, but I have to keep my distance.’ My freshman year didn’t go that well because I was thinking of family stuff and family drama all the time,” he said. “Slowly but surely, they started understanding what college is. They had no idea what college was other than that it was a guaranteed job. It was hard truth for me to see that. It really made me think, what toll is this college taking on them?”

He credits his coordinators at Philadelphia Futures for giving him the confidence to voice his concerns. He also credits his friends.

“We counsel each other: ‘Remember we’re first-gens, it’s just as scary to them as it us for us,’” he explained. “It’s my job as a bridge in between to inform them.”

Carmona said he doesn’t feel like he’s alone anymore. He’s hoping, in addition to his MPH, that he’ll also get a masters of clinical social work. He’s still figuring out exactly what his dream job is, but he wants to work with patients and he wants to help communities like his.

“Everywhere I go, it’s always in my mind,” Carmona said of his goals to give back. “Remember who you are, remember where your roots are. It’s not a solo journey.”

Cassie Owens is a reporter/curator for She was assistant editor at Next City and has contributed to Philadelphia City Paper, Metro, the Jewish Daily Forward, The Islamic...