First Generation Pathways to Success

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First Generation Pathways to Success is a new program launched by ASU for first-generation undergraduate students that emphasizes the benefits and opportunities in advancing to graduate school. Lindsay Romasanta, assistant director for the ASU First-Year Success Center, and Laurie Mook, assistant professor for the ASU School of Community and Resources Development, talk about the program.

José Cárdenas: ASU has started a new program helping first-generation college students that emphasizes the opportunities and benefits to advancing to graduate school. Here to talk about the program are: Lindsay Romasanta, assistant director at ASU's First Year Success Center. And Laurie Mook, assistant professor for ASU's School of Community and Resource Development. Thank you both for joining us on our show.

Laurie Mook: Thank you for having us.

José Cárdenas: This wasn't just something you thought this would be a good thing to do. You did a lot of research to establish the need. Tell us about that.

Laurie Mook: Well, ASU has a very high number of first-generation students, probably 40% of our undergraduate students are first generation.

José Cárdenas: And you define that --

Laurie Mook: First-generation student is a student that's come from a household where the parents have not completed a university education. So it could be --

José Cárdenas: Both of them.

José Cárdenas: Neither parent.

Laurie Mook: Or if they're in a single-family household, the parent they are living with. So yes, we created this program. There's a lot of first-generation students and we also found out that in terms of graduation rates, if you compare the first-generation students to non-first-generation students, there's a significantly lower rate of graduation for that group as well.

José Cárdenas: I think we can intuit why that might be but is there any specific difference that you notice between the kids who have role models basically of parents who have succeeded and those that haven't?

Laurie Mook: Well, first of all, their families quite often aren't able to help them navigate the university system. That's one thing. Quite often they have to work during their undergraduate years, as well. So there's a lot going on there. They are not aware of all the resources available and often they're reluctant to talk to faculty and actually seek out mentors. They don't know how to do that, what the resources are. So we thought it would be great to have a program that would kind of demystify this journey and we did that by inviting first-generation faculty members to come and share their stories and their backgrounds and their challenges, to kind of connect with the students, because they came from similar places, they had similar experiences and it was quite inspirational for the students to hear those stories.

José Cárdenas: So you're involved in this program, but as part of your job, you've been dealing with some of this already. What kinds of things do you do?

Lindsay Romasanta: At the first year success center we have a one-on-one coaching program in which we match successful upperclassmen with first year students. In the freshman class, similar statistics, about 1 in 3 are the first in their families to go to college and additionally about 1 in 4 come from low-income families. So looking at that, we knew it was important to target that peer to peer approach and connect students that have navigated the system there before and get them to talk to the freshmen, to inform them of the resources and to celebrate the important achievement that they're doing as the students who are the first in their families to go to college. It's also a pride piece. And ASU is committed to making sure the students succeed.

José Cárdenas: One thing that's different about this effort is the focus on getting these students to stay in school, not just to get their bachelor's degree. Why that? It would seem that you got your hands full already.

Lindsay Romasanta: We know that graduate aspirations meets the needs of not only the economy, but also meets the needs of the potential dreams of those students. A lot of them had never considered going to college before. So thinking about that next step is what we're thinking a great way to get those students to persist. We know that you need a bachelor's degree to move on to that next step. Connecting those students to the understanding of the potential power of having a graduate degree or even a doctoral degree can do so much. I'm the first in my family to go to college and I'm also in a doctoral program and I remember thinking wow like is this even possible? Can I make this happen? And it's working so far.

José Cárdenas: So how did you convince other people, professors who are very successful, presumably very busy, to get involved in this?

Laurie Mook: It really didn't take any convincing at all. I think everybody we talked to was really excited about this program, including also first-generation graduate students. We also invited graduate students to come and mentor at the event, as well. We had lunch tables where we had tables of 10 students sit with the graduate student who was also a first-generation student and share their stories and talk about resources and how they were successful. But really we had so many people interested. We had too many people interested for the event. We had to actually tell some people that we didn't have places for them, volunteer spots for them to participate.

José Cárdenas: And how do you make sure that the experiences are relevant? So, for example, graduate students would be closer in age. But some of the professors you've seen, that I've seen in the list, the age difference would be a little different and I'm not sure that their experiences as a first-generation student --

Laurie Mook: The people were recommended to us. We knew they had interesting stories and stories that were relevant to the undergraduate population.

José Cárdenas: What kind of feedback did you get afterwards as to ways in which you might improve the program?

Laurie Mook: Have more of them. Students were saying -- 50% of the students were seniors, and they were saying we wished we had had this earlier on. We want to target around the sophomore, second-year students because we know it can make a difference and do this every year, so that every year, they can get sort of this booster shot and be recommitted to their educational experience and really connect.

José Cárdenas: And as I understand it, a further aspect of this targeting, it was university-wide.

Lindsay Romasanta: So what worked really well for us is we were able to get faculty from multiple disciplines. We had someone that is in engineering, someone with liberal arts, someone who's a vice-provost. We were conscious of how can these backgrounds match the aspirations and the interests of the students that were there? We looked at matching the graduate students with the disciplines that the undergrads were interested in so that during those table conversations they could ask how did you get your masters in business administration or what's the process for becoming a physical therapist? All these different things. We know that that local connection can make a difference, and I think it worked really well in this event.

José Cárdenas: And I can understand what Laurie was talking about in terms of seniors saying I wish I had this before but do you need to tailor it for the different levels? For example, I would think your freshmen might not be thinking of graduate school, might be focused and properly so on just I want to make through this first year.

Lindsay Romasanta: Sure definitely. I think that planting the seed, no matter how early it is, is important. Some of the ways that we tailored or cultivated the program is looking at what are the different pathways to get to grad school, so besides the inspiration, how do you do it and what are some relevant experiences you could get in undergraduate, whether it's study abroad, volunteering, that can make you stand out and make your graduate application even better? So I think planting those seeds can happen even as a first time freshman.

José Cárdenas: I realize a little premature to ask about success stories but do you have any yet?

Laurie Mook: There were some comments from students in the audience, a few comments, students that were a little unsure and sounded like they may have wanted to give up at that point but were really reinvigorated and found the inspiration to continue. Another student was a senior, graduating and then intended to go on to graduate school but also stated that she wanted to make as her topic of study first-generation students.

José Cárdenas: How will you measure success going forward?

Laurie Mook: At the event we did a survey pre- and post to the event. We're looking to the changes in aspirations before and after the event and we hope to follow the students into the future, as well.

José Cárdenas: One last question. How many students? What's the percentage of students?

Lindsay Romasanta: I think it's endless. There's an infinite amount of first-generation students at ASU and the potential to continue to cultivate their dreams and aspirations I think will go however, it is that we need.

José Cárdenas: You've got your work cut out for you. Thank you so much for joining us on "Horizonte."

Lindsay Romasanta: Thank you very much for having us.

José Cárdenas: And that's our show for tonight. From all of us here at Eight and "Horizonte," thank you for watching. I'm José Cárdenas. Have a good evening.

Video: Funding for "Horizonte" is made possible by contributions by the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station.

Lindsay Romasanta:Assistant Director, First-Year Success Center at Arizona State University; Laurie Mook:Assistant Professor, School of Community and Resources Development at Arizona State University;

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