First Among Them

by Rachel White

“I dreamed of going to college, but I didn’t see how it was possible,” said Collin Barrett ’14, a biblical studies and Christian ministries major at Azusa Pacific University. The son of a hard-working tile contractor father and devoted stay-at-home mother, Barrett watched his parents struggle to provide for him and his seven siblings while growing up in the small Northern California town of Cool. Though his parents and teachers stressed the importance of education, there simply was no money for college, and his parents, having never attended college themselves, knew little of the available financial resources that could help him reach his goal.

First-generation college students such as Barrett chart new territory preparing and applying for college, which often puts them at a disadvantage in gaining access to postsecondary education. Perhaps surprisingly, nearly one in three entering freshmen in the U.S. today is a first-generation college student, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. At APU, approximately 16 percent of undergraduates identify themselves as such. Nationwide, these students find transitioning from high school to college tough, and they graduate at half the rate of non-first-generation students, according to the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment.

“First-generation students are educational trailblazers, and universities must work with them to remove barriers to their success,” said Sandy Hough, director of academic advising and retention. Her research indicates that targeted intervention efforts can help universities recruit and retain this population. At APU, Hough’s office leads the charge, along with support from the Office of Spiritual Life, the Student Center for Reconciliation and Diversity, and the Office of Orientation and Transitions, to assist these students by providing greater financial and academic resources. Their efforts produce positive results. “The retention gap for first-generation APU students is closing,” said Hough.

From 2006-10, the retention rate for this group soared by 15 percent to nearly 85 percent. Today, the retention rate among first-generation students nearly mirrors the rest of APU’s undergraduate population. Barrett, who once thought college an unattainable dream, credits the assistance he received from key people with making college possible, including his high school counselor and APU admissions counselor. “My APU counselor helped me fill out the FAFSA form, informed me about government grants, and researched specific scholarships,” said Barrett. “This has been a journey of faith, and God is providing for me in incredible ways.

“We want to help these students integrate socially, academically, and spiritually into the university culture and find their voice. I want to encourage them because somebody took a chance on me. These are our future leaders.”

Finances represent just one of many obstacles first-generation college students may encounter. In fact, defining common characteristics and challenges of this population proves difficult. Hough says that first-generation students come from varied ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, yet despite their differences, many share the feeling that they are imposters.

“On the outside, they act like college students, but on the inside they don’t feel they fit in,” Hough explained. “There are expectations and norms in the classroom that may be difficult for a first-generation student to navigate.”

The first in her family to attend and graduate from college, Christine (Castillo ’93) Guzman, assistant professor in the Department of Social Work, identifies with the struggle to belong that many of these students face. “First-generation students often feel invisible. In my classes, I’ll call upon the quiet Latina in the back of the room because I was that student,” she said.

The interest of now-retired APU social work professor Sally Alonzo Bell, Ph.D., ultimately changed the course of Guzman’s career and life. “Dr. Bell encouraged me to go to graduate school. I hadn’t even thought it was an option,” Guzman said. “She helped me apply and even paired me with a faculty mentor she knew at the University of Denver.”

Now, Guzman pays it forward by working alongside the Office of Academic Advising and Retention, coordinating a mentoring program where faculty from all disciplines pair with first-generation students. Faculty participants—many who were once first-generation college students themselves—connect with students to share experiences and offer support. The program, which launched last spring, involves nearly 40 students. “We want to help these students integrate socially, academically, and spiritually into the university culture and find their voice. I want to encourage them because somebody took a chance on me. These are our future leaders,” said Guzman.

First-generation college student Miriam Zepeda ’14, a global studies and Spanish major, already gives back to her peers. “I can relate to their struggles,” she said. “My first year at APU was a culture shock. Even the vocabulary was new to me. I had to learn college terminology and basic things like how to study.”

Zepeda now shares her wisdom with other first-generation students. As a student ambassador in the Office of Academic Advising and Retention, Zepeda provides peer support for students who may have difficulty with the financial and academic aspects of college. Studies show that peer support is a major factor in first-generation college success. Zepeda communicates directly with them, tackling the issues that can trip up their pursuit of a degree. She gives study tips, provides reminders about financial aid deadlines, and offers advice for uncovering external scholarship dollars.

“This level of comprehensive care represents more than institutional policy, it reveals the nature and character of the people in this community,” said Hough. “I see students sacrificing their free time to help one another navigate college life. I see faculty members going out of their way to nurture relationships and inspire leaders. When first-generation college students search for the right place to start a new family tradition of higher education, this is what draws them. This is what speaks to them and says, ‘You are welcome, you matter, you’re not alone, and you will succeed.’”

Originally published in the Summer '13 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.