Stepping up to the Challenge: What UCI is Doing to Serve First-Generation Students

Credit: Steve Zylius/UCI

Despite being one of the newer campuses in the illustrious University of California (UC) system, the University of California, Irvine (UCI) is both a highly-ranked research university and an example of inclusive excellence for its sister campuses and universities across the nation.

This year marks the third consecutive year that UCI was the top choice for in-state, first-generation students, with 47 percent of UCI’s California-resident applications coming from students who will be the first in their families to attend college.

For Michael Dennin (Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, Dean of Undergraduate Education, and Professor of Physics and Astronomy), this is recognition of UCI’s dedication to creating an inclusive campus environment for first-generation students:

“Our campus prides itself on providing support and offering a sense of belonging for every student. Over the last several years, my office and its units have focused on the first-generation experience and finding ways to help these students transition to UCI as successfully as possible. In partnership with the Schools, we are always looking to expand our array of specialized programs, resources, and support systems to help UCI’s first-generation community thrive!”

In anticipation of UCI’s incoming first-generation class, here are some of the key things that various UCI Schools and the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (OVPTL) and its units have done to prepare.

Preparing First-Generation Students for Major Success

Several UCI Schools have developed programs to support their first-generation students. For instance, the First-Generation First Quarter Challenge (FGFQ) has been helping first-generation students in the School of Social Sciences transition to life at UCI since 2016. As a collaborative effort between first-generation students, staff, and faculty within the school, the FGFQ was founded by individuals who have first-hand knowledge about what it takes to be successful at UCI. 

Freshmen students who enroll in the free program have ample opportunities to receive assistance and establish communities of support through weekly workshops and other interactive activities. However, the defining feature of the FGFQ is the mentorship that participating students receive from upperclassmen throughout their first quarter. 

Patrick Del Rosario, FGFQ Program Coordinator, explains that this guidance is particularly valuable in helping incoming first-generation students find their footing:

“Being on a college campus resembles traveling to a new country for the first time. Our mentors act as tour guides for our first-gen students and introduce them to the cultural nuances specific to our campus. New experiences are often coupled with their own particular challenges, some of which our students will see for the first time. Our program supports first-gen students by helping them find the balance of their personal and academic responsibilities through individualized mentorship and guidance from those who have been through the process before.”

Within UCI’s School of Biological Sciences, the Enhanced Academic Success Experience (EASE) Initiative is a specialized program designed to help first-year students find academic success. While this program is available to all qualifying students in the School of Biological Sciences, first-generation students make up more than 75% of participants. 

The EASE Initiative places eligible students into small cohorts who take Biology and Chemistry courses together throughout their first year at UCI. Students who participate in the program also enjoy benefits such as dedicated peer and academic advising, tutoring scholarships, and a smaller classroom environment. Because cohorts stay together throughout the year, students have an easier time connecting with their peers, making friends, and forming stable communities of support.

As Academic Counselors for the School of Biological Sciences and Co-Directors for the EASE Initiative, Alejandra Gutiérrez and Kristin Fung are proud of how the program has grown and evolved to serve first-generation students.

“Since its inception in 2015, the EASE program has helped many first-generation freshmen, as well as others, persist in the rigorous Biological Sciences major,”  Gutiérrez says. “The program provides its members with support via learning community cohorts that mitigate some of the non-academic factors that are barriers to their success.”

Fung adds, “The program is regularly evaluated in an effort to best serve traditionally underrepresented students, and we are proud of the community and positive environment we have been able to create, as it helps our students feel a stronger sense of belonging.”

Celebrating the First-Generation Experience

UCI has made strides in raising awareness of the first-generation student experience. While the transition to university life can be overwhelming for many new students, it can be especially daunting for students who are the first in their families to attend college. These students often feel underprepared and aren’t sure what to expect when they arrive on campus. 

To increase the visibility of UCI’s first-generation population, the First-Generation Faculty (FGF) Initiative was founded in 2014 by Anita Casavantes Bradford, Associate Professor of History and Chicano/Latino Studies. The FGF Initiative is a collaborative faculty network of professors who self-identify as first-generation college students or as advocates of the first-generation student population. The goal of the FGF Initiative is to create an inclusive community of peers and faculty members to help first-generation students transition to university life. 

According to Professor Casavantes Bradford: 

“Students who are first in the family to attend university possess a unique set of strengths, which include courage, ambition, persistence, adaptability, and a willingness to engage with the unknown. If they are properly nurtured, these strengths set first-gen students up for academic and future career success. At the same time, we recognize that it’s important to provide first-gen students with a community and with targeted support in adjusting to the unfamiliar university environment. What makes UCI unique is that rather than seeing the first-gen status as a deficit, we celebrate it—and we see our high percentage of first-gen students as something that enriches our entire campus community.”     

Over the past seven years, the FGF Initiative has fostered a campus climate that welcomes and celebrates first-generation students; informed first-generation students about key resources and support services; and facilitated important discussions on how departments, schools, and UCI as a whole can better serve this student population. Heralded as a huge success, the FGF Initiative has since been adopted across all 10 UC campuses.

Offering Opportunities for Personal and Academic Support

Student Success Initiatives (SSI) is the central hub where students can go for personal, academic, and professional support. Housed within the Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE), SSI is dedicated to serving underrepresented undergraduate populations such as first-generation students. 

“UCI’s student body is incredibly diverse, and it is our mission to offer a variety of services and resources so every student can access the help they need,” says Kevin Huie, Executive Director of Student Success in the OVPTL. “For first-generation students, we offer programs that help them adjust to campus life, inform them of available resources, and connect them with peers and mentors who can guide them through the ups and downs of being a college student.”

One SSI program that helps ease first-generation students into college-life is Summer Bridge. Summer Bridge awards eligible incoming first-generation students with a scholarship to attend a six-week program during UCI’s Summer Session. The program gives students the opportunity to start earning course credit, acclimate to campus life, and build relationships with UCI staff, faculty, and other students. Even after Summer Session ends, Summer Bridge students continue to receive benefits such as personalized academic advising, peer mentoring, community-building opportunities, and much more.

SSI’s TRIO Scholars Program is also an important resource for first-generation students. Federally-funded under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the TRIO Scholars Program offers eligible first-generation students academic, social, personal, and career support from freshman year through graduation. Students who participate in the program receive individual mentorship and personal guidance to help them navigate through things like registering for classes, changing their major, and applying for financial aid. The program also offers workshops, classes, and other opportunities to help first-generation students connect with peers and form their own communities of support. 

In addition to these programs, SSI also offers a variety of resources and services that first-generation students are encouraged to take advantage of. Students can explore SSI’s full range of services here

Amplifying First-Generation Voices

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing UCI to a remote learning environment, the FGF Initiative has recently developed a new project to help first-generation students adapt to the challenges of virtual college life. First Things First is an experiment in video mentorship where two first-generation freshmen students are paired with a first-generation faculty mentor. Each week, students respond to a prompt that invites them to reflect on their unique experiences as first-generation students in a virtual learning environment. Their faculty mentors then respond with their own videos, offering advice and words of comfort. 

The First Things First project provides an outlet for first-generation students to express their personal fears and concerns and receive support and guidance from mentors who understand what they are going through. Because First Things First video exchanges are publicly distributed over YouTube and social media, the project aims to address UCI’s entire first-generation population and remind them that they are not alone. 

Another project launched during the pandemic is the We Are UCI: Student Success Podcast. The podcast was established in an effort to offer UCI students a platform to share their stories, reflect on their individual challenges, and redefine success in their own words. 

As former first-generation college students themselves, co-hosts Jonathan Alexander (Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education and Chancellor’s Professor of English, Informatics, Education, and Gender & Sexuality Studies) and Hai Truong (UCI alum and marketing strategist for the OVPTL) are particularly invested in highlighting first-generation stories.

Associate Dean Alexander explains:

“As a former first-gen student, I know how important it is to make sure that our first-gen students know that they are not alone, and that their experiences are shared by many others. If we can encourage first-gen students to feel more at home here at UCI, to feel like they truly belong on campus and their unique contributions are valued and wanted, then we are doing our job!”

To listen to recent episodes of the podcast that feature first-generation students as guests, check out the episodes Britanny Duong, Joseph Spaziano, and Amy Liao. Additional episodes are available to stream and download on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and wherever else you listen to your podcasts.

From the First-Generation Faculty Initiative to the We Are UCI: Student Success Podcast, UCI has made a concerted effort to create an environment where first-generation students can thrive and succeed. “Our doors are open,” says Vice Provost Dennin, “and we couldn’t be more excited to have you!” 

Additional Information and Supporting UCI’s First-Generation Students

To learn more about the School of Social Sciences’ First-Generation First Quarter Challenge (FGFQ), visit its site here. For more information on the School of Biological Sciences’ Enhanced Academic Success Experience (EASE) Initiative, visit the site here.

To keep up with First-Generation Faculty Initiative news, updates, and events, click here. To support First-Generation programming, click here

For more information on Student Success Initiatives and its services, click here. To check out new First Things First videos or new episodes of the We Are UCI: Student Success Podcast, click here or here

Finally, if you are new to UCI, then check out this video where Vice Provost Dennin introduces some of the valuable resources available to undergraduates.