Helping First Generation Students Succeed

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Oct. 30, 2012

Helping First Generation Students Succeed

As Trinity University recruits more students who are first-generation and from underrepresented communities, faculty prepare them for life in college.

BRIDGE students Maria Moscosa '16, Giovanna Espinoza '16 and Professor Arturo Madrid 

SAN ANTONIO - Doris Silverio, a first-year student from Houston, had mixed feelings about coming to Trinity.  She was excited about the prospect of getting an education at the University but she was worried if she would be able to fit in.

"Having the opportunity to come Trinity means a lot to my family since I am the first child, niece, and granddaughter to pursue a higher education," she said. But she added that her immigrant family had very little knowledge about the United States education system.

Fortunately, Doris entered Trinity's Bridge Program, which supports her and other students who are first generation or from underrepresented communities as they prepare for success at the University.

In the last few years, Trinity has actively worked at making the student body more diverse. This year, 33.6 percent of first-year students come from underrepresented communities, 18 percent of first-years are eligible for federal Pell grants, and about 16 percent are first generation students.

Overall, 29 percent of all undergrad students come from underrepresented communities and 15 percent are Pell eligible.

To support some of the first-year students and students from underrepresented communities transition into college life, a trio of professors have developed a program that provides a primer into higher education.  

The Bridge Program was the idea of Robert Blystone, professor of biology; and Sheryl Tynes, associate vice president for Academic Affairs - who were both first generation college students.  Blystone and Tynes organized the first classes in 2010.  A year later, Arturo Madrid, the Murchison Distinguished Professor of the Humanities, joined Blystone to teach the incoming students.

Students in Blystone's class take a first-year seminar titled Stalking Medical Science. Madrid teaches a course titled Fear and Loathing in Higher Education to his first-years.

The students were able to move into the residence halls a week before the rest of their peers arrived on campus. That first night, the faculty hosted a dinner for the students and their families to celebrate the beginning of their college careers. 

Then for the next several days the students attended four-hour sessions to get acclimated to college life.  While some of the class time is used to learn about academic life at the University, the students are also introduced to the rigors of higher education, reading many texts and writing several papers.

The Bridge Program also included field trips to the Institute of Texan Cultures, which tied into last summer's Reading TUgether selection, Empire of the Summer Moon, and students in Blystone's  seminar went to see primates at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute.

Peer Tutors

Both classes had peer mentors who are also first-generation students. Nhu Hoang, a junior from Houston who is double majoring in biology and business administration, worked with students in Madrid's class.

Hoang said when she was asked to be a peer mentor for other first-generation students, she was more than happy to help. "Both of my parents were immigrants who never had the opportunity to pursue higher education," she said. "I know that it can be difficult and frustrating at times because you know that your parents support you, but when it comes to offering college advice such as what classes to take and which programs to enroll in, you have to look somewhere else and learn on your own."

"It's amazing how being connected  to people going through the same situation can be a huge factor in making you believe you could actually pull this 'college thing' off," said Vanessa Ortiz, a junior from Laredo majoring in anthropology and who worked as a peer mentor for Blystone.

She added that students from an earlier Bridge class suggested adding peer mentors. She said the older students felt it would be helpful for the new first-years to see someone who had once "been in their shoes."

Imposter Syndrome

Nearing the end of the program, several students from Blystone's class said the experience was beneficial in preparing them for life at Trinity.

Stephanie Schutz, a first-year from Georgetown, remembered getting a great boost the first night at Trinity, when families, students, and faculty gathered for dinner.  "Dr. Tynes spoke about the impostor syndrome, and how a lot of first-generations feel like they don't belong at a university, or that they are not good enough, or out of place," she said.

For Stephanie, the Bridge program shook off any doubts about her life at the University.  "Now I feel comfortable and I can do this. It is within the realm of my capabilities."

--story by Russell Guerrero '83 and photography by Allison Skopec '13.