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Davis, California

Thursday, April 18, 2024

First-generation graduates reflect on journey to commencement

Friends, family and mentors will gather this weekend to witness graduation, an event of such grandiosity that attendees might forget the complexity of what it symbolizes for many students.

Although graduates will be grouped together in massive commencements to receive their diplomas in identical caps and gowns, the feeling of accomplishment will be different to each. Some students have faced challenges, first in the process of getting to college, and then while navigating their path towards graduation.

For students who are the first in their families to graduate from college, in particular, completing their bachelor’s degree means reaching a milestone yet to be surpassed, serving as role models and paving the way for future family generations to go to college.

“Growing up, my parents always told me that education was important, but didn’t have a reason why,” said Ricardo Buenrostro, senior economics and psychology double major, whose parents immigrated from Mexico after completing a middle school education. “So I always wanted to go to college, but didn’t have the know-how to make it happen. Today, graduation is important, but not just for me; I have a younger sister and three brothers, and I now have the knowledge and experience to help them.”

Lauren Ilano, psychology and women and gender studies double major and student director of the Bridge Program at the UC Davis Student Recruitment and Retention Center (SRRC), said that graduation for students like Buenrostro is significant not just for the students, but also creates a lot of pride for the mentors that helped to get them there.

“They do want to strive for higher education, it’s just structural things that get in the way,” Ilano said. “There are parts of the process such as SATs, finances, that they don’t have anyone to guide them through with because they are first-generation. In this way the students’ graduation is an accomplishment for the community that assists them as well.”

Ilano acknowledged how broad the challenge of recruiting first-generation students is. To help mitigate it, the SRRC aims to promote all forms of higher education to underrepresented groups, with the message that a college degree is attainable and that resources do exist to help get there.

“Some students work, or are involved in their communities and families to the extent that they don’t consider college as an option,” Ilano said.

The outreach on behalf of the SRRC to bring kids to college works in tandem with the knowledge and experience of teachers, who serve as a primary inspiration for those trying to move into the university setting.

“I had great teachers who told me exactly what I had to do to get into a university,” said Bree Rombi, senior communication and Spanish double major, whose parents never had the opportunity to finish college. “For this reason, I’m doing the Teach for America program after graduation — I want to be able to be a motivation and inspiration for students the way that my teachers were for me. Knowledge is power.”

But even after getting to UC Davis, many students have found that staying at UC Davis is an equally, if not more daunting, challenge. To help retention rates, the UC Davis Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) leads the Special Transitional Enrichment Program (STEP), a month-long orientation for first-years coming from low-income households or who are first-generation college students in their families.

“Dropout rates are high among first-generation students,” said Al-Jerometta Chede, junior biochemistry and medical biology major who participated in STEP and now works as a peer counselor for the EOP. “Students can come and not know how to balance classes, and their parents don’t have the knowledge to help them.”

To help guide students to succeed with a rigorous course load, counselors put on mock classes run by tutors at the Student Academic Success Center, lead skill development workshops and provide academic advising during the month of STEP. Such a network of social and academic support, which continues to be available throughout the year, has made the difference in students’ success at Davis, Chede said.

“[With our help], they’re not homesick, they don’t feel like they don’t belong here, or doubt that they can do this,” Chede said. “I got a lot out of the program when I went through it, so I wanted to be able to give that to someone else, to let them know that they can do it.”

Evelyn Garcia, senior community and regional development major, took advantage of resources the EOP had to offer and said that it certainly helped her plan out her college career.

“During my freshman year I was really worried about things like not being able to write at the college level,” Garcia said. “I was worried it might not be for me. One of the challenges is definitely being confident in yourself. I went to the EOP peer counselors before my pass time every quarter before I figured out what I really wanted to do.”

Persevering through the challenges that the college experience presents can be difficult enough even if students are following in the footsteps of their parents and older siblings, which makes this weekend’s commencements the recognition of not only the milestone it is for all graduates, but for some, one that is unprecedented.

“For me it was just about surviving, finding something I was good at and to get to the end,” Buenrostro said. “My grandparents and younger siblings will be here [at graduation], and for most of them, it’ll be the first time they’ve ever stepped onto a college campus.”

Rombi said that her invaluable experience at UC Davis has shaped her into a better person in the four years since high school.

“There’s something about coming to a university that keeps you in it,” Rombi said. “It shapes you. I got away from home and made a new community here.”

So, for many, the endurance paid off. Graduation, for first-generation students, is a symbol of success for a community, for those who made the resources available for them to complete a higher education.

“It’s going to feel really good,” Chede said. “The whole time, you’ve got this burden when everyone’s just looking up to you to finish, so when you do, it’s amazing because you’re doing it for something bigger than yourself.”

LANI CHAN can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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