How Do First Generation Latinos Succeed in College? A Lesson from Latina Professor & Bilingual College Orientation Host

Last month Sonoma State University hosted its second Bilingual First Generation Orientation geared towards parents whose children would be the first to attend a four-year university. A little under 50% of first time freshmen are first generation college students, and a majority of these first generation college students are Latinx. Overall, 29% of the enrollment is Latinx, so a bilingual orientation is necessary so many of the parents can understand what is going on as their young adult embarks on the college journey. My role at the orientation was simple but also a great responsibility — I was the parent host.

After the parents checked in, they were guided to the university welcome. For Latinx parents, the Director of Enrollment Management of Sonoma State, Gustavo Flores, gave the welcome on behalf of Andrew Rogerson, Provost, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Chief Academic Officer, who was welcoming the English speaking parents. In addition to welcoming the parents, Gustavo congratulated them for the work that they had put in to ensure their children would be accepted to a university. He acknowledged them because he knows that many were immigrants, who did not have the opportunity to study or pursue an education in the United States. Despite not being able to pursue higher education here, these parents were learning about what would be the next steps for their children who had been accepted to a four-year university of 16,000. He also shared that he too was first generation, as is most of his staff in the Outreach and Recruitment office. Gustavo’s welcome set the day and the attitude, one where all the parents were encouraged to ask questions and to feel like this too was their university.

The parents heard from speakers about academics, what it takes to earn an undergraduate degree, and the breakdown of general education classes, electives and major classes. Parents also learned about financial aid and were encouraged to have their students accept work-study as it offers opportunities to work on campus and more flexibility as their schooling is prioritized. The parents then had lunch at the campus cafeteria, where their student will be having most of their meals their first year as freshmen. Finally, they learned about Tutoring, Learning Center and Disability Services. A majority of the speakers were bilingual and first generation college graduates. The parents also met and spoke to representatives from Seawolf Services, learned about how to pay online for parking and tuition. The parents were also introduced to the campus police and health center representatives. It was important for parents to know that these services were on the campus, and that they respond immediately if they are needed. Most parents didn’t know that so many serviced existed. The first day ended with a mini concert at the new hall, Green Music Center, and being in Sonoma County they were invited to a wine and cheese reception.

The second day of the orientation was shorter but offered the parents an opportunity to meet and get to know campus resources, such as the library and the librarians who offered them donuts and coffee. The parents also had an opportunity to chat with me. I was fortunate to give a workshop on first generation college families. I spoke on the importance of support as their student will be changing and will be gaining a new form of independence and freedom that is often not well received at home, in particular for young Latinas. I also shared my own story of being the first to go off to college and what that meant for my family because I was both the eldest and a woman. One key thing that I left them with was that they needed to visit their student. Not to visit just on “family visit weekend” or “sibling weekend” but to visit them on other occasions, to bring them food if possible and/or to let their student buy them lunch. I shared with them that while the student enrolment might be at 29% for Latinx, they may go through their entire college education without ever taking a class with a Latinx faculty, and that they should encourage their student to take an ethnic studies course because it might be the first time in their entire schooling that they take a course where they are at the center and their experience(s) is being validated and shared in a positive manner.

The last workshops/sessions were focused on the expectations for living on campus as well as how to let go of their student and to trust the educational process. At the end of the orientation, several parents were both excited and relieved. One of the parents realized the value of coming to orientation because she now knew what her daughter would go through. But this parent also felt bad that she had questioned her daughter for wanting to go to a university so far from home and for giving her student guilt about having to come to this orientation and take time off from work and home responsibilities. Despite having to travel and take time off from work, this mother found the Bilingual First Generation Orientation to be worth the effort of attending when she realized that she would be able to better support her daughter. I shared with the parents the names, emails and phone numbers of faculty and staff that have all completed and worked with undocumented students for several years as UndocuAllies (some of our Latino students are undocumented). I shared their information because these professionals know what it takes to be able to successfully navigate a four-year university, and they know the challenges that marginalized students face. As the parents left orientation, I was able to meet and greet their students. I am thankful that I’m able to share my own experiences, and I look forward to next year’s Bilingual First Generation Orientation and hope that the number of parents in attendance doubles.

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Mariana Martinez

Mariana Martinez

Mariana G. Martinez, PhD, is the eldest of three and the first in her family to earn a high school diploma and a higher education. She was raised by immigrant parents that encouraged her to get an education so that one day she could work as a secretary and not in a physically laboring job like the fields. Mariana has been an advocate in the field of education for almost 2 decades. Her love and passion in education began as Senior in high school interning at a local elementary school. Currently Mariana is the Research Coordinator for the McNair Scholar Program, a federally funded program that serves first generation and historically low income students pursue the next of their educational goals, at Sonoma State University. She is also a Lecturer in the Chican@ and Latin@ Studies Department.

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