Recording her first video, Joselyn was nervous.
Joselyn [she asked that her last be omitted] loves talking, and yet she didn’t know what to say. She wondered, at times, if she was even interesting. She captured several takes spread over two days of recording, cutting 44 minutes down to five. The video was published on Aug. 12 on YouTube, as an introduction to herself as a first-generation Latinx college student. She spoke of her El Salvadoran family, her interest in art through an AP class, and her pursuit of psychology as a major.
“There’s a general understanding that first-gen students go through struggles, that we have hardships,” she says. “But there are a lot of layers to that hardship, and things I personally didn’t know I was struggling with until I came to this project.”
The “LatiNXT GEN” episodes offer a window to see these experiences.
Joselyn is one of nine first-generation Latinx students documenting their transition from high school to their first year of college. The videos, of which there are currently 12 on YouTube, are self-filmed and either self- or collaboratively edited. The project is led by Bethany Monea, a Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Education.
Thematically, episodes run the gamut. One episode focuses on their experiences of voting for the first time, while another documents the first week of college.
“In one of my videos, I talked about how I was supposed to go to one college and I’m at another,” says Perla Gonzalez, one of the series’ creators, who attends Northern Virginia Community College. “And I’ve seen the positive things that have come out of that, and how sometimes things are not meant to go the way they were going to. I’ve had personal growth and I’m making friends and having fun.”
And, she adds, building a community.
“We all have different stories, but are under this same label,” she says, of working with the other members of the project. “And we see we can all relate to one another.”
That’s true of their experiences transitioning from high school to college, and as students suddenly were faced with acclimating to college life during the pandemic. She recalls the strangeness of planning for prom and then suddenly wondering if her graduation ceremony would occur.
“We were left to wonder, ‘OK, will we have graduation?’” says Keiry Yessenia, another student involved with the project who attends George Mason University. “It isn’t the same being in your PJs with your senior picture on a screen.
“I was the first person in my family to go to college, and I wanted to go on the stage and hear my parents clap.”
These are experiences they bond over, and reflect on in their own way in the episodes.
Transitioning to college last fall, their experiences ranged from moving to campuses that felt like “a ghost town,” says Gonzalez, to continuing to live at home with their parents. Joselyn recalls struggling to feel like she was in college at all.
“Suddenly, a bunch of the markers of transition were stripped away,” says Monea. “Instead of going from a high school classroom to a college campus with a lounge, a library, a student center, they were literally staying in their bedrooms and clicking from one learning management system to another—or sometimes the same one with a different logo.
“It was a different transition to the college experience, and I think it makes it a rich site of inquiry for these kinds of questions that I had already started thinking about.”
Monea has spent five years teaching first-year college students. When she came to Penn in 2017, she began doing ethnographic field work at a high school in Philadelphia and noticed a lot of differences between what was going on in high schools versus colleges.
“I didn’t see a lot of research specific in literacy to understand what that transition process is like in its totality from both ends,” she explains. “I was interested in doing a project to help people understand that.”
She adds: “We think of high school and college as being two separate spheres, but students don’t experience them that way; it’s an arbitrary distinction.”
Through volunteering with a college bridge program, Monea encountered the team of students she ultimately began working with for the “LatiNXT GEN” project. While the students were always supposed to film themselves, the pandemic forced a reimagining of how the series would be recorded and structured. Much of the collaboration and editing happens on regular Zoom calls and through Snapchat. Funding from The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation allowed for better recording equipment for the students to work with while creating their videos, as well as captions and Spanish-language subtitles for the series, among other aids.
“It’s inspiring to see Bethany use participatory filmmaking to empower this cohort of first-gen students to share their experiences as they navigate the start to college,” says Chloe Reison, associate director of The Sachs Program. “While this project was proposed pre-COVID, it responds to the moment in such an important way: giving voice to individuals whose lives have been significantly impacted by this global pandemic.”
Monea says, frankly, that she’s still working to answer questions she posed at the beginning of the project about transitions between high school and college. Those questions may soon get fuller answers as the students are eager to continue filming in the spring semester.
But a broader function of the project, to the students and Monea, is that it provides a crucial resource for other first-generation and Latinx students who don’t have a large pool of relatable stories to view on YouTube. And, adds Monea, it gives academics an opportunity to listen—truly, listen—to youth first-hand.
“What I want people to take away from this is that maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised when young people are able to tell their own stories with such sophistication and beauty, and aesthetic integrity,” Monea says. “I think we should be letting them tell us about this stuff more often than we—the academy, and especially as researchers—maybe are right now. And hearing what that experience is like from students’ own perspectives instead of trying to figure it out on their behalf.”