Blazing the Trail

There are many unique challenges and rewards for the hundreds of first-generation college students at SCU.

When Clara Chu ’03 crossed the stage at Buck Shaw Stadium to collect her diploma last June, she experienced a mix of emotions. Like any other graduate, she mostly felt a great sense of pride at having finished what she started four years prior. Unable to find her family in the sea of onlookers, Chu turned to the sociology faculty who had supported her through her four years at SCU, said “thank you,” and walked off the stage as another success story. But Chu might have been just a little more anxious and excited than her classmates. After all, there was a time when she was fairly certain that she would never even go to college.

Like approximately 20 percent of SCU’s student body, Chu was a first-generation college student, meaning neither of her parents graduated from a four-year college. The challenges inherent in being the first person in a family to attend a university might seem minimal from an outside perspective. However, first-generation students tell a different story.


It was these stories that motivated to delve deeper into the issues facing first-generation students. While teaching a social stratifications class, Nichols read journal entries by two first-generation students and felt they could help other students better identify with the concepts they were learning in class. She obtained a grant from SCU’s Center for Multicultural Learning and began working with first-generation students to document their stories. The result was Entering the Ivory Tower, a collection of 10 essays by SCU students. Nichols routinely uses the booklet in her sociology classes to illustrate the role that race, class, and gender play in people’s lives.

“There are many additional hurdles that these students face, some of them obvious and some of them more subtle. It’s hard to separate the difficulties of being a first-generation student from class and cultural issues, because they often intersect,” Nichols says.

This was certainly true for Chu, who was surprised at the difficulty of adapting to a new social and economic environment when she first arrived at Santa Clara. “The financial differences were hard. My friends would go out shopping and buy things I would never have the money to even consider. They weren’t working two jobs or sending money home to their families,” she says.

Patricia Castorena ’02 identifies with those challenges. Although she was accepted into SCU on her own merit, Castorena found the transition into the university setting difficult. Her first year, she suffered from “impostor syndrome” and felt she may have only been accepted because she was Mexican. “Over time, I slowly began to see that I was more than the sum total of my transcripts, and that my letters of recommendation and my personal essay had revealed my potential,” she says. “But it was hard at first.”

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SCU last year began a summer bridge program aimed at helping first-generation students such as Nhu-Y Le, above, make the transition to Santa Clara.

Pulled in opposite directions

Nichols says that one of the most basic problems that first-generation students encounter is a lack of understanding of the university system. “Many students take for granted that they can get guidance from their parents about dealing with college-related issues such as selecting classes and applying for financial aid. First-generation students don’t have that option,” she says.

Both Chu and Castorena say they were also unprepared for the rigorous academic standard at SCU. “I had done okay before, so everyone just thought I would continue to be fine,” Castorena says. “My family was very supportive, but they really didn’t know how to help.”

Because parents of first-generation students are less likely to understand the demands of college-level coursework, there can be unrealistic expectations. “Sometimes, families still expect their children to be around as much as they were before,” Nichols says. “Since students often feel that family comes first, they will be home when they are needed, even if it means less study time. Consequently, first-generation students feel like they have a foot in boats that are going in two different directions.”

In her essay, “No Hay Mal Que Por Bien No Venga” from Entering the Ivory Tower, Castorena writes, “Although I tried my best to go home every weekend, I also needed to stay at school to work on projects and to study for midterms. My mom got used to me coming home every weekend and it became an expectation I could not always meet. There were many times that year (and subsequent years) that I felt torn between school responsibilities and family responsibilities.”

One of the more subtle differences between first-generation students and their peers is a lack of what Nichols refers to as “social and cultural capital.” “It can be a lot easier to get an internship in a company if you have a family member or friend that works there,” Nichols says. Clara Chu remembers hearing professors discussing Europe and other countries. “Many of my friends had been there on trips with their families. But I had no point of reference,” she says.

All of these factors can leave first-generation students feeling confused and frustrated. Left to fend for themselves, and too embarrassed or afraid to ask for help, these students often feel like outsiders. Consequently, Nichols says, many first-generation freshmen don’t make it to their sophomore year.

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Research shows that first-generation students, such as Nichol Rideau, above, do just as well as other students after graduation. Studies also show that when one family member succeeds in college, younger siblings are encouraged to follow suit.

Building bridges

“The good news is that studies show that first-generation students do just as well as other students once they graduate,” Nichols says. “This means that we have a real chance to catch students up at the college level.”

Rosa Guerra Sarabia agrees. Last summer, Sarabia, the Leadership, Excellence, and Academic Development (LEAD) Program coordinator at SCU, began a new summer bridge program, aimed at helping first-generation students make the transition to Santa Clara. “As a first-generation student myself, I know what it’s like not to know where to turn for help. We want students to know that they are not alone, and I think this program can make a difference,” she says.

The summer bridge program brought 30 first-generation students and students of color to campus two weeks before the start of the school year. These students started their English and Environmental Science classes early, while attending workshops on study skills, financial aid issues, test taking, and other important topics. Besides the bridge program, the LEAD Program, which was partially funded by a three-year Irvine grant, includes a summer orientation for first-generation students and a parent outreach program. “Parents get the chance to visit campus and then we stay in touch with them via a newsletter so that they can gain a better understanding of what their child is experiencing throughout the year,” Sarabia says. For example, parents will be notified that finals are coming up and students may need more time to study.

President Paul Locatelli, S.J. ’60, was himself a first-generation college student and understands the importance of programs like LEAD. “Since its founding in 1851, Santa Clara has educated students who were the first members of their family to attend college. That commitment continues today because all of us at Santa Clara know that such an education is important to these students, their families, and society. We want them to be successful and to learn what it takes to become socially responsible citizens who will leaven society for good.”

“I was the first member of my family to attend college, and so I know that it is sometimes a very difficult change in life. We are committed to the success of this program that has been designed to help these students and their parents make the transition to Santa Clara and to the demands of university life,” Locatelli says.

Patricia Castorena, who now works at SCU’s East San Jose Community Law Center helping immigrants, wholeheartedly supports programs that give students some additional help. “I don’t think first-generation students need their hands held, but they do need that extra little push.” And the benefits of that “extra little push” can have far-reaching ramifications. Research shows that when one family member succeeds in college, younger siblings are encouraged to follow suit. As Clara Chu was receiving her diploma, her brother, Jacob, was in the stands applauding. He is now a sophomore at SCU.

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