First Generation Grads Pave the Way
June 5, 2012
By Elizabeth Chapin
If they stay the course, about half of the California State University’s undergraduate students will be the first in their families to receive a four-year degree.
This spring, commencement ceremonies throughout the CSU present proof these students are not only staying the course—they’re thriving. For example, officials at CSU East Bay and Humboldt State expect 40% of this year’s graduates will be the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree. CSU Fullerton and San Marcos anticipate that more than 50% will be the first in their families to do so.
These statistics are extraordinary. First-generation students typically face more obstacles in the path to a degree. For those coming from low-income families the challenges are even greater, and national statistics indicate the odds are against them.
The National Postsecondary Student Aid Study reports that 89% of low-income first-generation students leave college within six years without a degree—four times the dropout rate of higher-income second-generation students. These students are more likely to work while in school, have more financial obligations, and are less likely to be academically prepared for college.
CSU students are overcoming the odds and obstacles due to their own drive and dedication, and the support of campus communities. That assistance includes programs reflecting the CSU’s commitment to serving the diverse people of California. A considerable number of families in the state never thought college was an option.
The CSU’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) has helped more than 250,000 low-income and educationally disadvantaged students throughout the state—most are first-generation. The 40-year-old program provides access and opportunity at 22 CSU campuses through services including admission counseling, academic advising and peer mentoring.
Sacramento State’s EOP Coordinator David Ortega says that students selected for the program possess the potential to succeed.
“They just haven’t been able to realize that goal because of their economic or educational backgrounds,” Ortega said. “Nearly all of our students are first-generation, about 99 percent.”
First generation students need extra help to get started on the right track. National statistics report that more than a quarter drop out after their first year. EOP provides first-time students an opportunity to adjust to college before their first fall semester begins through a program called Summer Bridge. The program combines academic coursework with an introduction to the campus community to improve retention outcomes during that critical year.
Other first-generation students' success comes from a wide array of campus resources. Once they can navigate the campus, students quickly find out that there’s help around every corner. Many times, it comes in the form of a faculty mentor.
In 2008, CSU Fullerton student Hector Ramos was the Trustee Ali C. Razi Scholar of the William Randolph Hearst/CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement. When he graduated in 2010, he was the first in his family to get a degree. Now, Ramos is studying law at Harvard on a full scholarship.
Ramos’ achievements are nothing short of remarkable. He grew up poor, and he was not expected to pursue a higher education. In fact, Ramos was also the first in his family to earn a high school diploma.
Ramos says it was the guidance of his teachers and professors that ultimately empowered him to overcome such a discouraging environment.
“College was never on my agenda,” Ramos said. “I was blessed to have awesome teachers who truly believed in me. They told me I could be anything I wanted, and I believed them,” Ramos said.
“They went way above and beyond classroom instruction to help me and support me and tell me 'you can do more.' That’s something I’ll never forget.”