Building a Bridge to the Future

CSU First-Generation Students

For first-generation college students, navigating the new and relatively unknown world of higher education can be a challenging experience.  With the right support, however, these trailblazing students often exhibit extraordinary skills and determination, while bringing unique qualities to the institutions where they study, and the communities where they ultimately live and work.

Colorado State University’s Community Voices series recently highlighted one such student, Melanin Armendariz, a first-generation scholar whose life experiences and passion for learning brought valuable new perspectives to one organization’s mission of serving Colorado families.

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Tapping Into the Talent and Passion of First-Generation Students

‘Feeling Kind of Alone’

Albert Bimper, CSU’s Interim Chief of Staff to the Office of the President, understands what it’s like to be a first-generation college student.  As the first member of his family to attend college, he experienced first-hand both the thrill and uncertainty that can come with navigating a new, and sometimes daunting campus environment.

“The first-generation experience is a special one, and an experience I had to work through myself,” Bimper recalls.  “It’s literally the unknown of taking the first step, being the person to first ask the question, without having the baseline of information before you walk in.  That can create a lot of frustration and can lead you to just say “Hey, this is a question I’m not supposed to ask, and I’ll just wait until another time.”  “And so that first step then becomes the first miss.”

CSU graduate, Melanin Armendariz, knows that feeling well.  Melanin moved to the U.S. from her native Mexico when she was four years old.   Through hard work and support, she was able to pursue her dream of earning a degree in Human Development and Family Studies with a concentration in early childhood education.  But the process was not always smooth.

“I think for me, what was the most difficult thing, was navigating college itself as a first-generation student,” she said.  “I didn’t have any older sibling to ask, ‘Hey what do I do here, or how do I get to here?’”

An often-overlooked burden that Melanin and many first-generation students face is ongoing family responsibilities, according to Eric Ishiwata, CSU Associate Professor for Ethnic Studies.  On campus, those obligations can translate into classroom struggles, especially when professors or administrators fail to take into account the complexity of first-generation students’ lives.

“I’m guilty of this myself,” Ishiwata said.  “I see a student who comes late to class or doesn’t turn in an assignment, and it is really easy for me to think, ‘Oh, this is just a young irresponsible student that didn’t get the job done.’  But when you ask questions and you ask how come you weren’t in class or why was this assignment late, or why isn’t this paper as strong as the ones you usually turn in, the answers almost always are, ‘Well, my younger brother was sick or my sister got suspended from school and I had to go down there, or my dad was detained and I had to go and find a lawyer and help my mom deal with the emotional stress of it all.’ More often than not there’s a very legitimate reason and it’s just due to the complicated circumstances that are in front of these students.”

Armendariz said she experienced those realities herself during her time at CSU.

“I had a lot of responsibilities growing up and it’s not like those went away once I moved away,” she said. “I still had to do all of that from a distance.  I would sometimes have to leave campus to go places with my parents.  I would still get emails from my siblings’ teachers.  They would contact me first because they knew my parents were either working or didn’t know how to answer back. So, I had to do all that.  Just a lot of changes that I wasn’t expecting, and just feeling like kind of alone.” 

‘Be the Best Version of Themselves’

In 1984, Colorado State became the first university in the nation to offer scholarships specifically for first-generation students. For decades now, about one in four students at CSU has been in the first generation of their families to earn college degrees. Their success has demonstrated the power of a land-grant university to improve individual lives and communities through access to education, but their experiences have also helped highlight gaps in resources and support often experienced by students from underrepresented communities.

“These students don’t have somebody in their direct circle that may have the knowledge historically of the college process, of how to access resources, and how to utilize and leverage networks for support,” said Herman Shelton, Executive Director of CSU’s Access Center.

The Access Center is part of CSU’s focus on developing the talents of those historically underrepresented in postsecondary education, such as first-generation, low-income, ethnically and racially diverse and non-traditionally aged students.  Through a variety of programs, CSU works to increase the pool of students motivated and prepared for postsecondary education, and to provide resources and support for a smooth transition into the college environment and retention through graduation.

“Sometimes it’s about being academically prepared for the rigor of college,” Shelton said.  “Sometimes it’s about being financially prepared to sustain what it’s going to cost and actually knowing what that is at the onset. But sometimes it may simply mean navigating a difficult interpersonal situation for which you’re not ready.”

“What our first-generation students need, through my lens, is a welcoming environment,” Bimper said.  “One that is supportive, empowering, that tells them they deserve to be here. They have the right to be the best version of themselves while they’re here, and there are resources, there are mechanisms, there are people willing to pour into them and really enhance the tools and the talents that they have and the experiences that they bring with them.”

‘A Breath of Fresh Air… That We Needed’

It’s those life experiences and perspectives that can set first-generation students apart when it comes to having an impact on the community around them, according to Ishiwata.

“What our first-gen students have is a lifetime of problem-solving skills, a lifetime of resiliency, a lifetime of being the community connectors between a medical office and their family members, between the DMV and their auntie,” he said.  “And they’re doing this in ways that oftentimes are in multiple languages and oftentimes in code-switching, in cultural competencies that allow them to really be the trusted holders of knowledge for their communities.”

Those unique qualities shone through when Armendariz served as a student intern in the Colorado Department of Human Services’ Office of Family and Community Engagement.  The role not only leveraged her passion for early childhood development, but her background was a key advantage as she helped interview families participating in new Early Childhood Family Voice Councils.

“I think anywhere in life, when a new voice or a new group of shared voices come to the table and it’s actually heard, something changes.  And with Melanin, it was like a breath of fresh air, the air that we needed to enter the department,” said Chelsey Hall, Armendariz’ Internship Mentor and CDHS Director of Family & Community Engagement.  “When she came to meetings, everyone was super excited to meet Melanin.  When she came to Family Voice Councils, they didn’t care what I had to say anymore, it was what Melanin had to say and I think not only did she stretch us as state employees, but she really helped families too.  For families to be able to see that CDHS cares enough to have an intern, an immigrant, a first gen student here with us spoke volumes to the families as well.”

‘The Very Best of CSU…’

Ishiwata stressed the importance of internships and other experiential learning programs in helping first-generation students demonstrate their talents while gaining valuable experience and confidence.   In Armendariz’s case, he said the transformation was undeniable.

“I always knew that Melanin was smart, and I always knew that she was a hard worker, but I would see, even in university settings around her peers was that she would kind of clam up a little bit and be a little shy or insecure and not as confident,” he said.  “Something happened over these three months of the summer where she recognized, or people helped her recognize, the real strength in her story.”

Helping more stories like Armendariz’s come to light is an ongoing mission for Ishiwata and others at CSU.  Through CSU’s First-Generation University Initiative (FGUI), staff and faculty members have volunteered to organize, collaborate across departments, develop strategies, brainstorm outreach opportunities, and provide support for first-generation college students. 

“I’m really proud that Colorado State University is a national leader in support for first-gen students,” Ishiwata said. “That comes from offices like the Access Center.  It comes from our Communities for Excellence, from programs like the Bridge Scholars Program, which provides a unique chance for incoming first-gen, first year students to experience eight weeks of CSU life in the dorms taking classes before the fall semester starts.  I think, as Melanin proved in this internship, oftentimes our first-gen students are the very best of CSU students.”

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