Written by Kelly Rodriguez
Photos and infographs by Kelly Rodriguez
The decision to go to college is a pivotal choice for anyone. While some California college students come from family lines of college-educated parents and relatives, some students, known as first-generation college students, navigate college all on their own.
University of California-Davis sophomore Michael Brito said being a first-generation college student has led him to be more independent.
“I’ve grown a lot,” Brito said. “I’ve learned to fend for myself and it’s easier for me to focus on what I have to do.”
Pepperdine senior Tracie Loo said that her experience being both a first-generation college student and a transfer student has made her resilient.
“I learned that you just have to do what you gotta do,” Loo said. “It doesn’t matter what other people are doing, you do whatever feels good for you to pursue whatever you love and whatever it takes to make you successful. If that means sacrificing time studying, [or] not going out, you gotta do that.”
First-generation college students are a resilient but silent minority at colleges all over the United States. Although colleges keep track of the number of first-generation college students, there is no record really kept at the national level. Additionally, many of those students face a knowledge gap and a lack of guidance through the application process and through the college experience. While programs exist in high schools to help those students, they don’t often have the resources and staffing to assist all the students they need to serve. This issue gives rise to initiatives that colleges, both private and public, are pursuing to help these students thrive.
Source: Pepperdine OIE, CSU Factbooks, UC Infocenter
An Established Minority
At Pepperdine, 861 out of 3,300 students in the Fall 2017 semester were first-generation college students, according to the Office of Institutional Effectiveness.
Across all the Universities of California, there are 90,114 first-generation college students enrolled, according to the University of California Infocenter. In the Cal State system, about one-third of students enrolled are first-generation college students, according to the 2018 California State Universities factbook.
Kevin Huie, the Director of Student Success Initiatives at UC Irvine, said there are eight factors that contribute to a first-generation college student’s success.
“The eight factors are their college-readiness, a successful transition, academic achievement, matriculation (if they go from one year to the next), content learning in the classroom, leadership development outside the classroom and graduation,” Huie said.
Huie also said that navigating university can be complex.
“There’s a lot of questions that come from being a first-generation college student,” Huie said. “Anything from how do I budget to am I supposed to listen to one person in making a decision?”
The Experience of a First-Generation College Student
Each first-generation college student faces different problems depending on their situation.
Associate Professor of Education at Wheelock College Linda Banks-Santilli wrote an article about the “unique psychological challenges” that first-generation students face.
“Many experience difficulty within four distinct domains: professional, financial, psychological and academic,” Banks-Santilli wrote.
On the psychological side, these students often face a strong tie to their family, especially if they come from collectivist cultures like the Hispanic/Latino culture.
Pepperdine junior Genesis Trejo said she was academically prepared for college but she didn’t realize how difficult it would be for her emotionally.
“College is so much more than just classes,” Trejo said. “My parents never went to college, they’re immigrants, so I have that part of the immigrant story with me and that’s what’s kept me going … but just that alone is sometimes not enough to effectively get through college.”
Trejo said that her first year at Pepperdine was hard for her because her mother was going through health problems at home.
“I felt a lot of guilt that semester,” Trejo said. “I’m enjoying living a very lavish lifestyle here, even if it is a college dorm. It’s something that my parents could never experience and I had this opportunity … it’s tough to manage being grateful for the opportunity and the extent to which I feel that guilt.”
The complicated emotions can cause strains on family relationships for any type of first-generation college student, according to a 2016 study by Rob Longwell-Grice, Nicole Zervas Adsitt, Kathleen Mullins and William Serrata published by the NACADA Journal.
“One common theme links [all the studies]: the difficulty of negotiating family relationships,” the authors wrote.
Still, others face academic obstacles.
Brito said he was prepared to handle the emotional stresses of going to college because he participated in the AVID program at his high school. The AVID program seeks to provide resources and support for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
“AVID was really helpful in getting me to college,” Brito said. “They held [my] hand through it and they helped me emotionally prepare for college.”
But, Brito said they weren’t able to fully prepare him academically.
“AVID wasn’t really helpful in helping me prepare to write research papers,” Brito said. “I’ve had to figure that out by myself.”
Loo said her transition to Pepperdine was not only rocky as a transfer student but as a first-generation college student.
“I didn’t know any first-generation [college student] at Pepperdine when I transferred in,” Loo said. “I felt very much alone. I didn’t know how to ask for help and I couldn’t ask my parents for advice, which was very difficult to do.”
David Humphrey, associate dean of Student Affairs for Diversity and Inclusion at Pepperdine, said first-generation college students face a mix of problems from financial to academic to social that lead to a feeling of impostor syndrome.
“The reality is there’s never just one thing,” Humphrey said. “There are multiple things that hit them all at once … though they may have been prepared, they continue to receive messages that ‘you weren’t prepared for this.’ So it impacts them psychologically and sociologically, which in then impacts their academics, which in then impacts their ability to engage socially and in healthy relationships. And then don’t even throw in the money factor.”
The Programs at Public State Schools
Although UC and Cal State students said they had different reasons for attending a state school, they said that they have seen more people who are first-generation college students at their universities.
Brito said that at UC Davis, he has not thought of himself as first-generation and that he has not seen himself as different from his peers.
“I forget that it’s OK to be struggling because I’m handling more of life than I have to,” Brito said.
San Jose State University (SJSU) freshman Dulce Hernandez said she has something in common with the nine other girls she lives with in her dorm.
“The majority of us are first-generation college students,” Hernandez said.
First-generation students make up more than half of the population at UC Irvine, according to a press release from the school.
UC Irvine, along with four other UCs, was also named the top college doing the most for the American Dream by The New York Times.
Huie said the success of first-generation college students programs at UC Irvine rests on its decentralization and its loop of student feedback.
“We are pretty decentralized, but I know 95 percent of what’s going on,” Huie said. “If you ask any of our participants, what we hear is that they’re gaining exactly what we set out to do.”
Huie said that there are different program offerings for every type of need that a first-generation college student at UC Irvine would experience and that it is all explained on their website.
However, not every UC offers the same organization that UC Irvine has. Huie said that at most UC schools, the components all exist but the organization and offerings depend on the types of students they are serving. For example, Huie said UC Irvine has a high rate of first-generation transfer students, so they have a lot of first-generation transfer programs.
Sources: Kevin Huie, Cal State and UCs websites
Huie also said funding plays a big role in determining the offerings at both UCs and Cal States.
“Newer UCs like Merced and Riverside probably missed some funding, so their programs are not as developed,” Huie said. “UCs are also generally funded better than Cal States from every direction. Even if they have the same offerings, they still have more students enrolled, so things tend to be watered down a little bit. It has everything to do with resources.”
San Jose State University, where Hernandez attends, recently experienced a cut to their programs for first-generation college students.
“The GENERATE program was discontinued in June 2016,” wrote Amanda Aldama, the former director of the program wrote in an email.
Hernandez said she and her roommates knew nothing about the GENERATE program.
The Programs at Private Schools
Students at Pepperdine said they chose Pepperdine over public colleges because of the faith component and the individualized attention they have received.
Loo said she really wanted to go to Pepperdine and chose to go to Pierce College before transferring.
“I remember when I made the decision to go to community college because I knew that going to a state school wasn’t for me,” Loo said. “It just didn’t fit my personality type and the type of attention that I needed.”
In terms of Pepperdine-specific efforts for first-generation college students, the only offering includes the Pepperdine Summer Preview Program (PSP).
Ashley Nguyen, associate director of Admissions at Pepperdine, said the program currently serves 15 incoming freshman and aims to prepare them for college life at Pepperdine by connecting them to the Career Center, the Student Success Center, the Pepperdine Volunteer Center and each other.
“They hear about resources on campus, network and make friends,” Nguyen said. “The student feedback has shown that a sense of community is formed.”
But like many selective programs that aim to help first-generation college students, they are not able to accept more students to the program due to lack of financial resources.
“Two years ago, the past director applied for a Waves of Innovation grant but wasn’t able to get it,” Nguyen said. “So, currently with the budget, we’re going to stick with 15 students.”
However, passionate first-generation college students at Pepperdine hope to unite the community better through a newly formed student club called First Wave.
Freshman Karina Valenzuela said she got the inspiration to start the First Wave club at Pepperdine because of a story that she worked on in her journalism class and an essay that she did in her English 101 class.
“I found it interesting that Pepperdine was one of the only schools in Southern California that doesn’t have any support program for first-gen students,” Valenzuela said. “UCs have an implemented program where they have first-gen faculty and staff support first-gen students, Cal States have a student-run organization, Chapman University has that too.”
Valenzuela said that talking to other first-generation college students at Pepperdine, especially upperclassmen, made her realize that “something was missing.” Valenzuela said a club and a mentorship program would be able to fill that need.
“A long term goal would be to provide scholarships for incoming students and continuing students,” Valenzuela said. “I’d [also] want to collaborate with PSP to make that program more available for first-gen students, specifically during orientation.”
Trejo, who is working with Valenzuela to form the First Wave club, said she is “hopeful for the future” of minority and first-generation college students at Pepperdine.
”Over just my three years here at Pepperdine, I’ve seen the change,” Trejo said. “There’s so much more diversity. I see that trend is going to continue and I’m really hopeful.”
Connie Horton, the Vice President of Student Affairs at Pepperdine, said that because she has just started the strategic process during her first year in this role, she hopes to work with first-generation college students to improve student affairs offerings at Pepperdine.
“I’d be interested in hearing from that very same group,” Horton said. “We will listen to the student voices, we will look at the literature, we will look at best practices and research, but we want to hear from our students about what they need.”
Horton said that she envisions the ideal situation of first-generation college students at Pepperdine as having different resources of mentorship, counseling and tutoring for first-generation college students.
“I would like to have kind of like a menu of resources so that then the outcome is that they feel very much apart of this community and very able to be resilient,” Horton said.
Back in High School
Although there are many ways to help first-generation college students thrive when they are in college, the problem of misinformation still remains at the high school level.
Many of the students interviewed for this story mentioned that they wish they had better preparation in high school.
Loo said she would have benefitted from help in high school, even though her mom was able to hire a college prep counselor for her.
“When I was in high school going into my senior year … my mom was able to musk up some money to hire a college prep person to help me to get my ducks in order,” Loo said. “It was helpful but I still didn’t even end up getting accepted to Pepperdine [immediately], so it was kind of a waste.”
Valenzuela said although she was able to learn some things through her friends that were in the AVID program, she still needed extra college prep during high school.
“I came in academically prepared and I knew to get involved in extracurricular activities, but in college, you have a lot of free time and it’s just learning to time manage,” Valenzuela said. “I wish I had that in high school … and someone just to give me basic budgeting.”
Humphrey said that an ideal situation to help first-generation college students at Pepperdine would partially end up being an outreach program.
“Every time I talk to a first-gen student, they seem to have this desire to help other students that are first-gen,” Humphrey said. “It’s almost natural.”
Humphrey said that the major conversations on the future of first-generation college students at Pepperdine will occur this summer.
Nonetheless, the struggles and the work to be done on these programs do not outweigh the lasting benefits of the strides first-generation college students achieve.
Loo said that even though she’s graduating on April 28, she feels like there’s learning still to be done, especially because she hopes to either get her masters in international relations or pursue human rights law.
“Maybe I’m just saving that excitement until I graduate from a masters program,” Loo said with a laugh.
But, she said her parents are very proud of her.
“My mom is always crying because she’s so proud of how far I’ve come,” Loo said. “She used to clean houses in the Malibu area and for the professors at Pepperdine. She always wanted to go but … I don’t know if she was ready to go to university with the level of English and education that she had, so it’s a big deal for me to graduate.”
The author of this article is involved in the creation of the First Wave club as an alumni coordinator.
Follow Kelly Rodriguez at @KRodrigNews