How Melissa Raap’s first-generation college student experience shapes her work today.
Melissa Raap, MSW (’11) manages the University of Washington’s Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity Champions program. Champions serves students on the UW Seattle campus who are alumni of foster care or unaccompanied homeless youth by helping them navigate the challenging bureaucracies that come with being a student. Champions connects students with resources on and off campus, including counseling, financial aid, study abroad programs and even snacks from the Champions food pantry. Many of the students Raap works with are first-generation college students, and she draws on her own experience as the first in her family to attend college to better support the students in her program.
Raap grew up in a suburb just north of Dallas, Texas. She is a first-generation American citizen and the daughter of immigrants. She recalls that although no one in her family had attended college, her family had high expectations for her. “They told me, ‘You’re the first American. You’re the first grandchild. You are going to college.’” Despite her family’s early and often reminders that they wanted her to go to college, Raap wasn’t sure what she wanted after high school graduation. She attended a college fair, half-heartedly looking into college admissions, and speaking with a guidance counselor about what steps to take next. Her guidance counselor didn’t provide any more motivation than the cookie-cutter brochures she picked up at the college fairs. “The only guidance he gave was to take the SAT,” Raap recalls. “That’s it. No other advice on how to apply or where I should be looking.”
It wasn’t until Raap, by chance, ended up on the University of Texas, Austin campus that she began to think about her future education. “The thing that happened that really changed my mind and made me decide to go to college,” Raap remembers, “was that I was in theater in high school and some folks from theater and the Speech and Debate group went to Austin, Texas for competition at UT. That was my first time stepping foot on a college campus.” She describes seeing The Drag – the area around the UT Austin campus with busy coffee shops, live music, and a 90’s grunge vibe she hadn’t experienced in the Dallas suburbs. “I said to myself, ‘I guess this is the place that I want to go.’ It was the only college that I applied to, so luckily I got in. That’s how I decided to go to college.”
Many factors play into whether a student will apply for college immediately following high school. The first, and greatest factor is if either of the student’s parents had attended college. The second is familiarity with a college or university campus. Students who grew up around or have visited a campus in person are far more likely to apply, and very likely to attend. That was the case for Raap with her once-only visit to UT.
After graduating from high school early and with time before UT’s fall courses, Raap worked a full-time job and enrolled in a local community college to get a head start on her studies. “That was probably pretty helpful because it was my first taste of studying after high school and I was able to make mistakes without huge repercussions,” Raap explained. “I don’t remember ever looking at a syllabus – I missed a midterm – I got lost on campus and decided not to go to some classes. I am so glad I learned how to make these mistakes before beginning UT.” Her experience mirrors many who are the first in their family to attend college and who may feel lost or alone in their journey. Armed with the lessons learned from a semester of community college, Raap made her way to Austin to learn yet another system, and this time on a much larger campus.
Orientation was the first, and only time Raap met with an academic advisor throughout her undergraduate degree. She told her advisor she wanted to study psychology on the pre-med track because she was interested in pursuing pharmacology later. Raap recalls, “she told me, ‘that’s really hard. That’s probably not going to happen for you.’ And I remember thinking, ‘okay, I don’t trust you anymore.’” She enrolled in classes on her own and decided to take her time to declare a major.
“I do want them to know that somebody is thinking about them. Somebody believes in them. Somebody’s proud of them – a lot. I’ve had so many students tell me ‘You’re the first person that told me that you were proud of me.’ That’s unacceptable.” – Melissa Raap
During her undergrad, Raap made the most of her newly discovered freedoms with access to more of the things she liked to do. She attended concerts, explored Austin, worked at the university bookstore, lived in dorms, lived off-campus on her own, and shaped her UT journey the way she wanted. That was until the summer of 2000, when she was home in Dallas on summer break. In June she was in a collision with a semitruck and in August her father passed away unexpectedly. The trauma from a near-death experience and losing a parent took a toll on her mental health and her ability to study. On top of that, she hadn’t shared what happened to her with anyone at the college. After failing biology and struggling with the events of the summer and the immediate aftermath of September 11th, Raap had considered stopping. However, her mother persuaded her to stay but agreed she could take a break. Before taking six months off to help take care of a sick family member in Europe, she set out to select her major. “I didn’t trust that one advisor and I didn’t know who to go to. So, I looked at all of the majors that they offered on their website and systematically checked them off.” Raap found an intro class for social work, which she thought was interesting, and that became her major.
Raap’s became passionate about working with youth, particularly those in foster care long before she completed her degree. To escape the Texas summer heat, she and a friend worked for a Boston-based summer camp that operated in the New Hampshire wilderness. That experience changed her life. There, she worked with teens and pre-teens with behavioral health issues and of the ten young girls in her care, eight of them were in the foster care system. She started asking questions. “What happens when you don’t have parents and you turn 18? How are we caring for these young people?” She and her friend returned to work at that summer camp for another summer. Working with the teens and wanting to understand more about social work research and outcomes for youth in foster care, Raap realized she needed to continue her education. “When I was in the UT School of Social Work, I realized this is only the first step. I thought I just needed to get a bachelor’s degree, but actually, I need to get a master’s degree now” Raap recalls. “I just knew that this wasn’t the full education that I needed to do whatever it is that I wanted to do.”
Much like how she chose to attend UT, she tagged along to Seattle with friends who wanted to check out the University of Washington. While her friends were out on a campus tour, Raap spoke with admissions for the UW School of Social Work, and shortly after was admitted. “That was the first time I’d ever been in Seattle, And I was like, I think this is the spot,” Raap said. Giving herself grace for challenges she faced in community college and at UT – that were largely influenced by the trauma she endured and the lack of any real student support services – she renewed her purpose and set out to complete her MSW at the University of Washington. She remembered thinking, “This is my chance to do school like I should have done my undergrad now that I know better.” Building on her experience at the community college, and now with hard-earned knowledge of higher education systems, Raap set out on her graduate school journey.
Through the UW School of Social Work, Raap focused her research, volunteering time, practicum, and the near entirety of her academic life on issues surrounding youth in foster care and what happens to them when they age out of the system. Serendipitously, Maddy Day, another student in her cohort was also interested in this topic. Day had already laid the groundwork with UW administration to outline the need for student success programming directed toward students who were alumni of the foster care system. Day also persuaded Raap to get more involved in the Champions program. In 2011, both Raap and Day graduated with their Master’s of Social Work and began working with the fledgling program, that at the time had recently reorganized within the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity to be part of the academic advising suite of services. Day has since moved on to other projects, but Raap continues the work today.
Over the past twelve years, Champions has grown from serving a handful of students to now 115 students each year and growing. The programming has developed from drop-in events a few times a year to full-time student support services including a snack pantry with shelf-stable snacks that students can grab whenever they need. “More than that, Champions is a place where we celebrate individual successes, we help when things get hard, and we act as a sort of cheerleaders for these students,” said Raap.
Raap believes the greatest services she and her team provide are emotional support and encouragement. “I try to treat every student like an only child, and that’s so hard, but they deserve it. They deserve someone to pay attention to them,” said Raap. She continues, “I think about my experience in college and that I wouldn’t have gotten through it without my mom. And for folks that don’t have parents, I’m not their parent – I’m not trying to be their mom. But I do want them to know that somebody is thinking about them. Somebody believes in them. Somebody’s proud of them – a lot. I’ve had so many students tell me ‘You’re the first person that told me that you were proud of me.’ That’s unacceptable.” Raap credits her mother’s encouragement and steadfast cheerleading through her own first-generation college student experience as her motivation and how she shows up for the students.
Raap wants more people to understand the challenges that students who were formerly in foster care face. For some, their lived experience can leave them guarded and slow to open up. She explains, “they don’t need your pity. Champions doesn’t need your pity. What is needed is support, curiosity and understanding.” Additionally, many of the activities on college campuses are geared toward family involvement. “You can’t see it, and you can’t tell by looking at somebody if they’ve been in foster care, or if they’ve experienced homelessness without a parent, or what their family status is, so it can be really lonely.” On the first day of the quarter when the UW campus is gearing up to host alumni and family for events, Champions has an open house with bagels, donuts and coffee.
When looking back at her journey as a first-generation college student, Raap points out common threads between her experience and those of many other first-gen students. “I didn’t know anything, and the college that I went to was so big. I didn’t know who to go to for questions, or even that that was an option. I felt like I had to do it all on my own.” Without any support from student success programs she had to make her own way, choosing her own classes and major, and even figure out what to do post-graduation. “There were all of these things that I had missed out on because I just didn’t have somebody that could walk me through those steps. I didn’t get involved in research. I didn’t have help with homework, tests, advising or even career advice. I didn’t know any of the resources available to me.”
Raap persevered and uses her experiences to help others – despite the challenges that so many face as a first-generation college student and notwithstanding the added stress and difficulties that come with life-changing traumatic events. Her work with foster care alumni and students who have experienced homelessness without a parent is not only changing the lives of students every day in real time, but is recharting the course of these students’ future families for generations to come.