New First-Gen Coalition offers support to first-generation students at Oxy

Laura Paisley

Recognizing the unique needs of this cohort, particularly during remote learning, the coalition of staff, students and faculty have planned targeted workshops, social mixers and peer mentoring.

Senior Jazmin Calderon-Arreola, a Spanish studies major with minors in public health and kinesiology, was the first person in her family to go to college. Because of this, she had no idea what to expect—she didn’t know anyone who could share their experience or prepare her for what college life would be like.

“My lack of knowledge about how college works made my transition more difficult,” she says. “I was unaware of the available resources and opportunities, and I didn’t know how to ask for help. I had to navigate the system on my own.”

For first-gen students—any student whose parents or guardians did not complete a four-year college degree—things that others take for granted represent totally uncharted territory. Approaching faculty or College offices can be especially intimidating.

Senior Jazmin Calderon-Arreola, a first-generation student from Portland, OR.
“As a first-gen student there’s a sense of isolation and worry because you feel like everyone else knows things that you don’t—like everyone is ahead and you’re behind. Like me, many first-gen students are also BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] and/or from low-income households, which adds more challenges to being successful in college.”

Erik Quezada ’09, director of Occidental’s Neighborhood Partnership Program and himself a first-generation student, agrees.

“First-gen students experience life a little differently,” he says. “They don’t always have the best support system. I think back to my own experience at Oxy—life was hard. And I didn’t realize that wasn’t necessarily the norm.”

In May, during a Student Affairs meeting in which a then-theoretical remote fall semester was being discussed, Quezada posed the question of what Oxy would be doing for its first-generation students, which make up 16% of the Class of 2024. Not only would they be adjusting to college life, but also to remote, online learning and community building.

It began a series of enthusiastic conversations and summer meetings that gave rise to the First-Gen Coalition (FGC), headed by Quezada along with staff, students and faculty who share a desire to serve and support these members of the Oxy community.

“We’re fully invested, and there’s a lot of good energy in the group as we think about how to support these students and hear from them about what they want to see,” Quezada says.

So far, FGC has planned and hosted a number of workshops and events specifically for first-gen students. It hosted a welcome event for incoming first-years during Orientation. Fall events were planned, including sessions on how academic advising works, a special writing workshop and a social mixer to help first-gen students connect.

First-gen students at Oxy have always advocated for themselves, Quezada says, figuring out how to connect with resources and support. But in these unprecedented times of pandemic and remote learning, he sees it as critical for the College to take a more proactive approach.

“I see this new opportunity as a way to get ahead of students’ needs,” he explains. “The First-Gen Coalition is our effort to finally institutionalize first-gen support at Oxy, permanently.”

In addition to working with FGC, Calderon-Arreola has worked to revive the student-led First Gen Club at Oxy, which languished following the graduation of its leadership in 2018. The club is intended to provide academic and social support, and foster a welcoming environment to share experiences and create a peer support system.

“In my time at Oxy I’ve witnessed an immense need for support for first-gen students,” she says. “They are hardworking and persevering, and have always supported and advocated for each other. But in the past there has been little to no institutional support at Oxy for first-gen students.”

Luci Masredjian, director of disability services and student support at Oxy, is a first-gen student and a member of FGC. She says there are psychological barriers for these students, including feeling like they don’t belong. So it’s not simply a matter of finding the right resources, it’s knowing the resources even exist, and having confidence that they will apply to them and their particular situation.

“Having resources designated specifically for first-gen students is critical,” she says. “I still have PTSD from filling out the FAFSA form! My parents were immigrants and my mom would have no idea what the answers to the questions were, so I just kind of winged it. And that’s how a lot of our students feel.”

Other ongoing events sponsored by FGC include a first-gen support group, informal drop-in counseling, and the Tiger Access Program, which introduces traditionally underrepresented, first-generation and/or low-income students to Oxy’s academic and residential community.

“There are other workshops being planned, with topics including financial literacy and imposter syndrome,” Calderon-Arreola says. “We welcome student feedback and try to plan our workshops around what students want to know about.”

Seeing many people from departments and offices across the college that are committed to helping first-gen students through FGC has been very satisfying, Calderon-Arreola adds. As she works to fulfill the vision of her predecessors, she loves getting positive feedback from current first-gen students and seeing how excited they are that an organization to support them has been established.

“I hope that the First Gen Coalition can continue to establish a support system for first-gen students, give them greater visibility on campus, and lift the weight of teaching themselves and others about college.”