Frances Contreras was an achiever when she attended high school in the 90’s, and was thrilled to receive multiple college acceptance letters. Yet her guidance counselor warned her away from attending a four-year university, saying she would probably be overwhelmed because of her background and upbringing.
Fortunately, Contreras ignored that advice and became the first in her family to attend college—a “First Gen.”
She earned her undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley, but didn’t stop there. Contreras went on to Harvard for her master’s, then Stanford for her PhD Overwhelming? From time to time, but that didn’t hold her back. She’s now a UC San Diego professor in the Department of Education Studies and was recently appointed associate vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion.
Contreras’ story is one of many—thousands, actually, as UC San Diego on average enrolls more than 2,500 First Gen students each year, up 33 percent over the past 10 years. These numbers and the corresponding success of students have launched a UC system-wide initiative to showcase the unique struggles and triumphs of those who are first in their families to attend college.
With 10 campuses across the state, the numbers are impressive. Almost half of UC undergraduates are the first in their family to go to college, far outpacing select public and private institutions, and above the national average for four-year universities. Of these students, 49 percent are underrepresented minorities, 60 percent are from lower-income families and 39 percent speak English as a second language.
Their achievements are worth noting, too. Compared to a low of only 11 percent nationally, 80 percent of UC First Gen students graduate within six years, and after another six, their median income has fully surpassed that of their families’. Just as important, UC student experience surveys find a vast majority of First Gen students report a strong sense of belonging on campus.
“Education is key to social mobility, enabling you to break free from convention and shape your own future. This is especially true for first-generation college students who seek to transform their lives and succeed, for themselves and their families,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla at the start of fall quarter, which saw hundreds of faculty members and staff celebrating their own First Gen status as a welcome to students. The campus community came together for a special forum called “What Fueled Me to Be First,” where students heard a variety of First Gen stories, firsthand.
Stories like Ricky Flahive ’17, a First Gen alumnus who achieved so much at UC San Diego that he took the stage as student speaker on graduation day with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. A transfer student, Flahive said attending community college not only gave him a second chance, but gave him the confidence that he belonged at a university.
“UC San Diego wasn’t even on my radar when I started my life at community college, but its presence on our campus changed my life into something that would have been unimaginable,” he said. “Everything that I accomplished in college, both at the two-year and the four-year college level, I owe to the networking and the community I found with the student leaders I surrounded myself with.”
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Juan Gonzalez echoed the importance of resiliency, determination and finding an effective support system. Gonzalez was the youngest of 10 children in his family to graduate from college, and said he and all his siblings benefitted from generous and giving elders, mentors and faculty. He called First Gen students “intelligent, motived and dedicated,” and said extra guidance and resources may be needed for these students to thrive.
Many of UC San Diego’s First Gen faculty and staff, like cognitive scientist Bradley Voytek, musician Susan Narucki and Sarah Baker of the Analytical Writing Program, share a common desire to mentor. Gentry Patrick, a professor of neurobiology, benefitted from mentorship when he was a First Gen student at UC Berkeley and knows the role a mentor plays for struggling college students.
“College is really one of the most transformative times in your life,” Patrick said. Having grown up in Compton and the Watts neighborhood near Los Angeles, he said he wants to make sure young students from similarly underserved areas know schools like UC San Diego are within their reach.
“You can really think about what you want to do with your life and then gain the necessary skills and knowledge base. An education is one of the best tools you can equip yourself with, especially for kids coming from underserved backgrounds,” he said.
Despite the struggles, Contreras—that First Gen student who wouldn’t listen to the doubt about her in high school—said she wants all students to feel empowered and succeed: “I tell my students, ‘You’re exactly where you’re meant to be. And know that you belong here.’”