Going to college to get to college

“I got married at 17 years old. In Mexico it’s very common. That’s why I tell my kids go to college,” said Margarita Chavez, a parent of five who took part in the tour. “Before I knew nothing about the prices or the opportunity, the FAFSA. Now it helps a lot. ... I’m excited for all my five kids. They need to go.”

Spanish translator, Emma Lopez, points out the different CU Denver buildings on the Auraria Campus on Sept. 21. The children of these parents will be the first of their families to attend college, should they choose to do so. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Au

Spanish translator, Emma Lopez, points out the different CU Denver buildings on the Auraria Campus on Sept. 21. The children of these parents will be the first of their families to attend college, should they choose to do so. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel

AURORA | A college education can be a critical component to a child’s future. A degree from an institute of higher learning can lead to higher earnings over a lifetime and a better chance to move up the socioeconomic ladder.

It’s why many parents who didn’t themselves go to college put such an emphasis on their children becoming the first in their family to earn a degree. But while parents want to help their children, their own lack of experience in college admissions, financial aid and school life can be a barrier.

Navigating a school’s admissions process, understanding what financial assistance might be available, knowing how to prepare a child to deal with the daily grind of higher education. All of that can be difficult for a parent to help their child with if they don’t have any experience with it themselves.

As a way to help bridge that knowledge gap, Aurora Public Schools’ Elkhart Elementary School has worked for the past three years to take parents who don’t have personal experiences with college on tours of campuses.

Emma Lopez, the family liaison for Elkhart, recently facilitated a tour of several dozen parents from Elkhart to University of Colorado Denver on the Auraria Campus. Lopez, who translated the presentation and tour for the Spanish-speaking parents, said the tours were vital for parents to learn about everything from admissions and financial aid to what college life is like for students.

“I want to show my children the opportunities in this country, to go to college,” said Leidy Mendez, who has a 7-year-old at Elkhart, through an interpreter. “I feel awesome to be here and excited because my daughter already knows what she wants to do. She wants to study chemistry. And every opportunity I have to learn about college I want to take. I’m saving money and I want to know how I can help pay for it.”

Parents of Elkhart Elementary School students take a selfie with Milo the Lynx, Sept. 25 at CU Denver on Auraria Campus in Denver. The children of these parents will be the first of their families to attend college, should they choose to do so. Photo by

Parents of Elkhart Elementary School students take a selfie with Milo the Lynx, Sept. 25 at CU Denver on Auraria Campus in Denver. The children of these parents will be the first of their families to attend college, should they choose to do so. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel

As a teacher in Mexico and someone who works in education, Lopez said she was at a loss herself on the admissions process for her own children when they went to college. If someone who works in education needed help to learn about the process, it’s even more difficult for parents without any experience in education to help their children navigate the system. Which is why she helped start the program at Elkhart.

“When they come here they’re seeing real students. Students like their kids. When we went to the School of Mines, they were seeing Hispanic, Asian students talking to them. When we went to Boulder, it was the same. They were seeing themselves there,” Lopez said. “They say, oh now my son can be somebody. They can help society.”

One of the biggest perceived barriers for parents is the cost of college. But as parents on the tour learned, there are so many different opportunities, whether it’s scholarships, grants or other means, to help defray the cost of tuition.

“I got married at 17 years old. In Mexico it’s very common. That’s why I tell my kids go to college,” said Margarita Chavez, a parent of five who took part in the tour. “Before I knew nothing about the prices or the opportunity, the FAFSA. Now it helps a lot. … I’m excited for all my five kids. They need to go.”

Ilyas Ahmed, a father of three, immigrated to Colorado from Somalia several years ago via Malaysia. While he had started his education in information technology in Malaysia, it was a difficult process trying to work as an immigrant and study. When he came to Colorado, he originally hadn’t planned on going back to school because he assumed it was too difficult of a process and wasn’t aware of the help available. It took a friend at his job to encourage him to walk into a community college office and ask about the process. Now he’s in his first semester.

“I came down today because I wanted to learn for my son’s future so he could continue his study and improve his life,” Ahmed said. “He’s young now but I’m trying to get a lot of information since I’m from Somalia. In this country, there’s different rules, regulations. I’m trying to learn what’s going on so I can help him get a better life.”