First generation college students overcome unique obstacles

As part of the Title III HSI STEM Grant program, students participated in an activity where they answered questions to get to know each other better. Those who are part of the program were able to find their card with a message they wrote at the beginning of the semester, which allowed them to reflect on their goals and aspirations. / photo by Abelina J. Nuñez
As part of the Title III HSI STEM Grant program, students participated in an activity where they answered questions to get to know each other better. Those who are part of the program were able to find their card with a message they wrote at the beginning of the semester, which allowed them to reflect on their goals and aspirations. / photo by Abelina J. Nuñez

Abelina J. Nuñez
Photography Editor

As a first-generation college student and an only child, my decision to go to college was not just for myself but also for my family. 

In high school, I was unsure of my future. I applied to four Cal State, four UCs and to two community colleges for back up. I received emails from private colleges offering free applications, so I applied. I received my first acceptance letter in December 2019. I was accepted to the University of La Verne in February of 2020. 

Abelina J. Nuñez, senior journalism major, is the first in her family to pursue a higher education. She decided to attend the University of La Verne to earn a bachelor’s in journalism and a minor in photography. / photo by Mia Byington

When choosing which school to attend, I was not looking for the best parties or even the best academics, I was focused on which school would offer the most scholarship and financial support. Ultimately I chose ULV over Cal State Long Beach because of the financial aid I was offered here. 

The 2022 Brookings Institution report “First-generation college students face unique challenges” found that first-generation college students tend to choose less selective colleges over highly selective ones because the highly selective colleges are more expensive and require more resources to get admitted. Two-thirds of these students attend open-admission colleges, while less than one-third attend highly selective colleges, the report found.

Because I started during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, my entire first year was online. I was somewhat relieved that I got to stay home for one more year before moving onto campus, an hour away from my home in Los Angeles. I am very close to my grandmother and my mom, in part because my dad died when I was 6. I planned to go to La Verne sight unseen. An hour from my home is not too far, but still a transition, which I ultimately made sophomore year.

Many first-generation college students struggle with challenges before and during their college years, including homesickness and financial challenges, and even imposter syndrome, they say.

Nearly half the students at the University of La Verne are the first in their families to attend college.

“My mom immigrated here when she was younger, so I have that pressure that they came here for a better life,” Jocelyn Castaneda, a senior criminology major and first-generation college student. “If I don’t continue that advancement for the generations, I’m discrediting everything they’ve worked hard for.”

Jocelyn Castaneda, senior criminology major, has been serving as a resident assistant for two years. She said the experience has helped her create more connections with the staff on campus, which has been a great structure for her. She will be graduating a year early. / photo by Abelina J. Nuñez

Castaneda is graduating a year early, she said, adding that she learned about the resources available to her through her work as a resident advisor, or RA.

“Being able to advocate for themselves is definitely something that I see students first-gen students struggle with,” said Aracely Gutierrez, ULV’s director of the Title III Holistic and Inclusive Practices for Student Success STEM Grant, one of the support structures for first generation students here. “Also just navigating the space and not knowing what you don’t know.”

“We’ve created a comprehensive scaffolded program, so I think that that really helps our students because they’re having a one-on-one conversation with (program staff),” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez said the program has a career development component designed to meet the needs of its students. They keep in touch with the students throughout the year, monitor their academic progress closely, and offer peer mentoring, she said. This allows the directors to identify struggling students early on and provide them with the necessary support to get back on track.

Like many first-generation college students, Castaneda said she did not choose her first-choice college, which was Penn State. Although she said it would have been a dream, it would have been too much of a financial burden.

“I have siblings, too,” Castaneda said. “I’m the oldest of all my siblings, so in my mind, I just thought we couldn’t do this. La Verne was … the cheapest option.”

Senior legal studies and French major Isela Chavez, who is also a first-generation college student and president of ASULV described her transition to college. Like me she started in the fall of 2020, when nearly all classes and activities were online. But she lived on campus that first year.

Aracely Gutierrez, director of the Title III HSI STEM Grant, organizes breathing exercises to help the students relax and destress before their final program meeting on April 29. The meeting took place in the ballroom of the Abraham Campus Center. Gutierrez also works closely with the mentors during their junior and senior years, holding one-on-one meetings with them. / photo by Abelina J. Nuñez

“Housing was at 25% capacity, so there weren’t that many students here,” Chavez said. “And only the residence halls and the dining hall were open, so there wasn’t much to do. In the second semester of my freshman year, I joined Greek life and making those memories made my first-year experience feel different – like I got something out of it.”

The 2023 report Mental Health Among First-generation College Students: Findings from the National Healthy Minds found that 33% of first-generation students sought therapy for such issues as depression and anxiety. That report also found that about 55% of first-generation college students reported feeling stressed often or always, and 15% had suicidal thoughts.

As for me, I did OK my first year online, and even ended up making a good friend in my journalism major. We decided to take all of our classes together sophomore year, which eased some of my anxiety about moving away from home to start my college journey in earnest.

Still the day I moved into the dorm, after my mom and grandmother left, I cried and had a hard time falling asleep.

I’d chosen a single room, which had its perks, but was also lonely. I called and facetimed my family daily.

“I am an out-of-state student,” Chavez said. “I’ve had to deal with stress from work, financial worries, and a changing family dynamic, because I decided that after graduation, I don’t want to return with my family.” 

Sherly Aviles-Morgado, FYE HIPSS Coordinator, works closely with the mentees by having one-on-one meetings to discuss their curriculum and to provide them with a roadmap towards their success within the University. She makes sure to help the freshman navigate the transition from high school to college. / photo by Abelina J. Nuñez

Many of us first generation students, whose families may not quite understand what’s involved with being a college student, carry the extra burden of needing to prove that we can not only make it, but we can excel and get straight As.

My friendships, particularly with other first-generation students, helped because we were going through so many of the same things, so we shared information about resources.

Rooming alone sophomore year, I became friends with Naty Castellon who lived down the hall, and we decided to room together junior and senior years.

Other first-generation students at ULV find support through the Title III Holistic and Inclusive Practices for Student Success STEM Grant program, which is designed for students who identify as first-generation, Latinx and people of color.

“We want to ensure that students have not only their mentor and us as a resource, but we also provide them with the option to go to tutoring or have an academic coach,” said Sherly Aviles-Morgado, a program coordinator. The program aims to support students’ academic, personal and professional growth through mentorship, workshops, dinner series, student programs and one-on-one support.

Throughout my four years at La Verne, my community of supportive friends expanded. Despite my struggles I pushed through – and even made dean’s list each year. 

“Being a first-generation Latina college student is something I’m very proud of,” Chavez said. “I’ve had a lot of struggles throughout my journey because of where I come from and who I am. It has shaped me into the person I am today and what I plan to become as a professional.”

Abelina J. Nuñez can be reached at abelina.nunez@laverne.edu.

Abelina J. Nuñez, senior journalism major, is a photography editor for Campus Times and staff photographer for La Verne Magazine. She previously served as LV Life editor, arts editor social media editor and staff writer. In Fall 2023, Nuñez was La Verne Magazine's editor-in-chief and was previously a staff writer as well. Her work can be found on Instagram @abelinajnunezphoto.

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