Senior Beth Griffin prepares to become the first college graduate in her family.

Senior Beth Griffin prepares to become the first college graduate in her family.

After years of studying and countless hours in the dance studio, Towson University senior Beth Griffin is finally getting ready for her academic curtain call. Graduation is just around the corner.

“I’m panicking a little bit–a lot,” Griffin says as she tidies up her room decked with a vintage 1970s Led Zeppelin poster, cat calendar and a tacked deflated Washington Redskins balloon.

“I’m thinking about jobs. Where am I going to work? Where am I going to make money?”

She may be uncertain about the future, but she is sure her college degree will play a major role in the fulfillment of her future goals. As far as academics are concerned, she is a trailblazer in her family: the acceptance of a college diploma in December will make her the first in her family to graduate from a higher institution. But while her plans and aspirations may make her unique, she is actually part of a growing trend among Maryland college students.

The past few years have seen both an increase in high school and college graduation rates, as well as a general decrease in college drop-out rates. The numbers at Towson University alone speak to the upward climb.

According to Bob Giordani, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management at Towson, the college has seen a general increase in graduation rates over the past year.

“Towson’s four-year graduation rate rose from 40.3% to 42.8% over last year,” he writes via email correspondence. “The six-year graduation rate rose from 63.5% to 65.7%.”

This climb is part of a growing trend in Maryland, a trend that has seen more students matriculating through both high school and college. According to a recent article published in the Washington Post, new reports show an increase of one percent in high school graduation rates in Maryland and a similar decrease of one percent in dropout rates.

“Maryland recently released graduation data showing that the graduation rate increased nearly a percentage point for the class of 2012 compared to the previous year’s students, rising to 83.5 percent from 82.8 percent,” according to the Post.

The article continues, “The dropout rate decreased from 11.2 percent in 2011 to 10.3 percent in 2012, a drop of nearly a percentage point.”

This positive shift in educational statistics has not been limited to Maryland, however, as numbers reflect an overall climb in high school rates across America.

According to the Washington Post article, “The numbers are part of a general upward trend for the state, which reported that about 80 percent of its students graduated in 2009.”

At Towson, the past few years have seen an increase in the number of undergraduates receiving degrees, and Giordani says he predicts either the same number of graduates or a slightly higher number for the 2014 Spring Commencement.

For students like Griffin, the statistics seem to be on their side.

“It feels really cool to be a first generation college student,” Griffin says proudly. “I know especially my dad is really excited about it, because he comes from a very, very working class family, where nobody goes to college, nobody even thinks about going to college, so for him, it’s kind of like moving up in the world.”

“Something you always want to do is provide a better life for your children then the one that you had, and he can say that that happened.”

Griffin is a double major in dance performance and cultural studies. She has high hopes for her future, with plans to become a professional dancer and political activist.

“After school I plan on auditioning for professional dance companies,” she says. “That’s the first goal because the human body doesn’t hold up forever, so the clock is ticking on that one.

In terms of cultural studies, I’m really interested in activism and lobbying, and I feel like that comes from growing up right near DC, I’ve always been very politically minded, so if I can, I would love to advocate for the arts using the knowledge that I’ve gained from the cultural studies major.”

Griffin has been planning for her future–for her graduation–for as long as she can remember. But she has not been the only one with a strong investment in her academic future. In recent years, schools have begun placing greater emphasis on instilling the importance of academic achievement in their students.

“I felt high school was definitely interested in getting me into college,” Griffin says. “From my first day freshman year in high school, they were saying this is what you need to do to get into a good school, and we are going to get you there and we are going to beat you with brains.”

But the process doesn’t just start in high school. According to Calandra Arrington, Assistant Principal of Pimlico Elementary/Middle School, students are now being taught the importance of advancing their education as early as the sixth grade.

“I work with our school counselor…we communicate articulation, where she brings in different high schools and speaks to the students about possible high schools they can go to, what high schools specialize in, and what do they need in order to go to that particular high school…This year we’re starting as early as sixth grade.”

In addition, she believes the school system has improved a great deal in providing not just the materials necessary for students to succeed, but the emotional and mental support as well. Arrington attributes the increased graduation rates among high school students to this new approach.

“I feel that the education system is enabling a lot of students with disabilities, and those who do not,” she says. “I think we give them so many services within the school building. We give them school counseling, we give them special education services, we give them food, we give them clothes. Everything they need is here…I think that’s one of the reasons why.”

“I believe that people are beginning to have those conversations with children, ‘you know what, if you want to do this, you can do this,'” she continues. “People coming back into the communities and speaking to students…just hearing success stories overall of people who look like them and sound like them.”

To her, much of the importance of propelling students through their educational careers comes from impressing upon them the importance of having long-term goals, and the need to have the means to achieve those.

“I try to tell them that even people who work at McDonald’s, Burger King, need to have a high school diploma, because businesses do not want someone who can’t read or write, who just know the simple things in life,” she says.

The importance of extending support services to students extends beyond middle and high school, however. According to Giordani, the increased graduation rates at Towson University can also be attributed, in part, to the advising services the college provides to students.

“This increase in graduation rates is due to the strong freshmen classes we’ve brought in, better academic advising, and our strong first-year advising program,” he says.

This new approach, beginning in elementary and middle school, instills in students the importance of improving their own lives and shaping their own futures.

“I really think the trend will continue because children are wanting more for themselves, parents are beginning to want more for themselves,” Arrington says. “The fact that we have so many avenues and mental health things within the school buildings is really starting to help out as well. I believe as long as the school system makes parents more accountable and children more accountable, you’ll have that increase.”

Bill Reinhard, Media Relations Director at the Maryland State Department of Education, believes that the school system has done a good job of instilling the importance of higher education in students during recent years.

“Maryland this fall is fully implementing the Common Core State Standards, which are learning goals specifically designed to prepare students for life beyond high school,” he says. “The added rigor will help students progress through the grades and will allow a better transition to post-high school life – be it college or career.”

Beyond this, he believes parents and students alike are beginning to better understand the need for education beyond just the high school level.

“School systems continue to work very closely with their students to keep them on track to graduation,” he says. “There is a growing realization among students and their families that a high school diploma represents the bare minimum credential for a career.”

For students like Griffin, the idea of higher education means not only making themselves proud, but earning the respect of their families and loved ones.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself to make them [my parents] proud. I want to be that agent of change in my family to break the cycle. I want to start that trend.”

Griffin is one of countless graduates this year who is part of such a trend. She is helping to break not just a cycle in her family, but one that has affected students across the state and country. And she couldn’t be more proud to be part of the positive change.

Back in her apartment, Griffin nervously prepares for her Science Technology and Culture midterm, but she can’t help but daydream about the life that awaits her after college. She has plans to move out of her off-campus apartment and back home to Frederick, MD before auditioning for dance companies. She is looking forward to a lifetime of accomplishments before her, and will soon have a degree in-hand to prepare her for her future.

“It’s really exciting,” Griffin says, “because I think I’m ready. I’m ready for the world.”

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