When Sara Garcia stepped onto campus for the first time, she was excited about the opportunities a bachelor’s degree could provide for her family– but her loved ones didn’t share that same excitement. Instead, they worried that college could be too overwhelming for her, in addition to working and raising her son.
“My parents don’t understand the hours of studying it takes to pass an exam or finish a project. They just know I’m not spending enough time with family,” said Garcia, a senior nutrition student.
Garcia is not alone. More than half of the student population at Cal Poly Pomona is attempting something no one in their family has done before— becoming the first in their family to earn a college degree. First-generation students account for 58 percent of the student body.
The Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and The Suder Foundation, recently announced the 2021-22 First-gen Forward cohort, which included Cal Poly Pomona. The First-gen Forward designation recognizes institutions of higher education that have demonstrated a commitment to improving experiences and advancing outcomes of first-generation college students.
Cal Poly Pomona received the designation based on the university’s acknowledgement of the challenges first-generation students may encounter and its dedication to improving their experiences and supporting their academic success.
“The Center is so pleased to welcome Cal Poly Pomona into the 2021-22 First-gen Forward cohort. Through the application process, it was evident that Cal Poly Pomona is not only taking steps to serve first-generation students but is prepared to make a long-term commitment and employ strategies that foster an environment of success for this important population,” said Sarah E. Whitley, assistant vice president of the Center for First-generation Student Success.
In 2018, CPP launched the I AM FIRST Mentor Program. In this program, first-generation college students are matched with a faculty or staff member on campus who also identifies as a first-generation college graduate. The aim is to foster a sense of belonging and create a pathway to success for CPP students.
“The transition to college is challenging, but it can be even more difficult for those who do not have a parent or guardian who is familiar with the college enrollment process and the expectations of campus life,” said Dora Lee, the director of academic support and learning services who oversees I AM FIRST. “We have a responsibility to help first-generation college students to navigate the university and help them translate the important life skills they bring with them that will support their academic success.”
When Garcia signed up for the mentorship program, she couldn’t have imagined a match more perfect than Ariana Estrada, a scholarship coordinator in the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships.
“Ariana was the first person I felt comfortable sharing my thoughts and feelings with as a first-gen student and parent,” Garcia said. “It feels good to talk to someone, so I feel less alone.”
Estrada and Garcia still meet monthly over Zoom to check in. Sometimes, Estrada will send motivational emails or ask, “How are you?” and it means the world to Garcia. In May 2022, Garcia expects to complete her bachelor’s degree in nutrition science, and she thanks her mentor for the impact she had on her higher education journey.
“We need to remind our non-traditional students that they belong at Cal Poly Pomona,” said Estrada. “Mentorship creates a pathway to opportunity and fosters a sense of belonging. I’ve shared my personal experience of pursuing a graduate degree while raising my son and working full-time to empower Sara and show her what’s possible.”
Thanks to Estrada’s encouragement and example, Garcia is working on applying to master’s and doctoral programs. She is also a 2021-22 McNair scholar and aspires to become a registered dietitian and a nutrition professor.
To learn more about I AM FIRST, visit https://www.cpp.edu/studentsuccess/oss/i-am-first/index.shtml. To learn more about the Center for First-generation Student Success, visit https://firstgen.naspa.org.