When I talk with staff and faculty on college campuses, I often begin the conversations with an invitation:

Think about one or two college students you have known who were especially or exceptionally successful. What characteristics or attributes contributed to the students’ success? If you could develop a “formula” for student success, what would it include?

Most often, I hear things like: self-starter; motivated; committed; no excuses; and planner; strong communication skills; proactive.

I then share “Eleanor’s story”, a Food Bank volunteer who I met several years ago. Eleanor was volunteering to satisfy a community service requirement resulting from a court case and was having a hard time scheduling the necessary shifts to complete her hours. She pulled me aside one morning to explain that she worked full time – and needed her 40 hours because she was raising her two daughters without the support of their father – but, she’d taken off work that morning to try to get the community service hours done. (The judge in her case had told her that if she came back to court without having completed her service hours, she would go to jail.)

Eleanor further shared that as a single parent, she was responsible for getting her young daughters to and from their after school activities. On her way home from work the previous evening, Eleanor had received a call from her mother, who was at the hospital with her father, asking her to come to the hospital. Eleanor’s mother did not speak English as her first language and needed help with translation. Her mother expected Eleanor to come to the hospital as she did not have a partner at home like her sisters did and could bring her children to the waiting room with her.

Eleanor had also been a successful student. She’d been enrolled in a degree program at a local university until recently, when she’d had to pause on this dream – at least for a time – until she could find a way to balance her more immediate obligations of rent, food, health, and caring for her daughters.

There was never a question about Eleanor being a “self-starter”, who was motivated, with a plan for success. No, Eleanor had been a successful student; she simply ran out of funds and hours in her day.

Here are a few statistics from Cal State East Bay:

  • The average age of undergraduate students is 24.
  • 61% of the student population are women.
  • Over the last 5 years, on average, 22% of first-year freshmen students do not return their second year.
  • The six-year graduation rate for the last cohort of students (Fall 2011) was 42%.
  • In Fall 2017, 51.7% of undergraduates were categorized as PELL eligible; this gives the campus an idea of the proportion of students who are low-income and would qualify for some form of aid.
  • 12.9% of students are graduating in four years (last cohort of students Fall 2013).

Let’s think about this: what if I’m a college student living in Alameda County, working full time, and raising a family? What happens if my class is on a Tuesday evening and my professor’s office hours are on Thursday afternoon? Would it make a difference to my ability to communicate with my instructor if the office hours were one hour before or after class? This is the kind of reflection I share with new faculty and administrators when I have an opportunity to talk with them because sometimes, success means re-imagining the path.

For many first-generation college students and students who come from a background of generational poverty, navigating through to graduation or successful completion of a certification program is not an individual goal or pursuit – it’s a community endeavor.


-Sheila Burks, Community Development Manager

About the author:

Sheila leads ACCFB’s Equity & Inclusions and Bridges Out of Poverty work – a vital part of the Food Bank’s efforts to address poverty as a root cause of hunger. Sheila’s efforts reflect ACCFB’s commitment to ending hunger through policy, practice, and structural and systems change that can help transform conversations and communities.