Pilot Program Helps First-Generation Students Start College

DAVIS, Calif.; October 10, 2016–Instead of working in the strawberry fields like most of her family, Elsy Mora decided to go to college. The freshman from Lompoc is starting her first year at the University of California, Davis, with the help of a scholarship.


Juan Lopez, left, and Elsy Mora, right, participated in the UC Davis College of Engineering’s summer bridge program for first-generation college students. Photo: Kelley Weiss/UC Davis.

After her first days on campus, she’s quick to smile and wears a sparkly horseshoe necklace, a nod to her roots in agriculture.

Mora moved from Mexico to California with her family when she was nine-months-old. After arriving, both of her parents took jobs as farm workers.

Mora has a little brother who is a freshman in high school. She says he doesn’t want to finish high school but would rather go back to Mexico and raise cows and ride horses all day. Her older brother, who is 21, tried to go to college at UC Santa Barbara, but she says he barely made it through the first year before dropping out. He is now working back in the fields with his parents.

“When I got the scholarship my brother cried. I’ve never in my life seen him cry, and he said, ‘you go and do what I couldn’t do’,” she says. “I want to motivate my younger brother and show my older brother that even though he couldn’t, I will.”

Support in place before the first day

Mora knows that in order to be successful in college she’ll need help. She, and 45 other freshmen, all first-generation college students, took part in a week-long summer bridge program in September. The UC Davis College of Engineering Leadership in Engineering Advancement, Diversity and Retention (LEADR) Program administered the bridge program and Mora and her peers were the first students to participate in the project.

Forty-five incoming freshmen took part in a week-long orientation for first-generation students. Tanya Whitlow, far right, led the program.

Forty-five incoming freshmen took part in a week-long orientation for first-generation students. Tanya Whitlow, far right, led the summer bridge program. Photo: Laura Hackett/UC Davis LEADR Program.

Tanya Whitlow, director of the LEADR Program, coordinated this effort. She says it was developed to provide an immersive college transition experience for first-generation engineering students.

“We wanted to have a summer bridge program that enabled students to get to know others with similar backgrounds and who also have a focus in engineering,” she says. “We really want them to have that community and to prepare them for what to expect, particularly being first-generation students and not having access to that information at home.”

Whitlow says that the program is designed to help high-achieving, underserved students, and that these students will continue to get support through LEADR until they graduate. Whitlow says that LEADR offers resources and advising to support their retention, which is important because the challenges these populations can face as they work toward completing their degrees are well known.

That’s why Whitlow says it’s so important to show students before they even start class all of the ways we can help them be successful in college. She says the Bridge Program helped do just that.

“It was the perfect amount of time for them to get to know one another and to form those bonds because they all have rigorous engineering programs in common and they’re all excited and nervous about college,” Whitlow says.

Peer mentors key to smooth transition

As part of the Bridge Program, Whitlow asked engineering students who have been in the LEADR Program to act as mentors. The five resident mentors were each assigned to a group of incoming freshmen and lived with the new students in the dorm for a week. They also planned evening activities like karaoke and a trip to the Farmers Market in downtown Davis.

One of the resident mentors, Maira Hurtado, a senior in Computer Science, says she has had a real sense of déjà vu throughout the week as students expressed the very same doubts she had as a freshman: “I don’t know if I can do this,” or “I don’t know if I am in the right major.”

College of Engineering students Marisela Marimontes, left, and Maira Hurtado, right, were resident mentors for the summer Bridge Program. Photo: Sean Ayres/UC Davis.

College of Engineering students Marisela Marimontes, left, and Maira Hurtado, right, were resident mentors for the summer Bridge Program. Photo: Sean Ayres/UC Davis.

Marisela Miramontes, a fifth-year student in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and resident mentor, heard the same concerns. And she says she’s been proud to tell students that despite being first-generation students, they can survive the first year.

“We share some of those similar experiences with them and we’re still here, we’re getting our degrees and we’re on track,” Miramontes says.

Hurtado adds that this orientation program gives students the tools and foundation to ensure future success and helps students be ready for the first day of classes.

“They have a support system and they’ve made new friends,” she says. “A lot of people come to college and think, ‘I don’t know anyone and I’m alone.’”

Both Miramontes and Hurtado say volunteering to mentor these first-generation students – just as they were a few years ago – has been an honor.

“This program has changed me to be a better person,” Hurtado says. “I’ve connected with so many students and have them look up to me. Hopefully it has changed their lives as well as they make the transition to college.”

Professional development

In addition to giving practical advice to the new students about how to best manage their time, study and utilize college resources, professional engineers and alumni were featured speakers during the Bridge Program.


Chevron Corp. engineers, Pascha McAlister, front right, and Ian Elliott, back right, had students practice answering job interview questions during the summer bridge program. Photo: Sean Ayres/UC Davis.

The Chevron Corporation was the founding sponsor of the LEADR Program and also participated in this pilot.

Ian Elliott, a College of Engineering alumnus in chemical engineering and Process Safety Management specialist at Chevron, helped lead a workshop about how to get a job. Elliott showed examples of resumes and had students practice how to answer standard interview questions.

Elliott says he recruits engineering students from UC Davis and is happy to have the chance to talk with first-generation students about promising future jobs.

“We want to help get people thinking and planning ahead for career opportunities,” he says. “Even freshmen need to have it on their mind.”

Another UC Davis College of Engineering alumnus came to speak to the students about his experience as a first-generation student. Mike Coffey is Senior Vice President of Global Delivery and Assurance at AT&T. The Mike & Jody Coffey Foundation, along with AT&T, are also LEADR sponsors. Coffey says that he didn’t know what he was getting into when he first arrived on the UC Davis campus more than 30 years ago. But, he says, what made a big difference was simply asking for help.

Mike Coffey, AT&T senior executive and UC Davis engineering alum, was a first-generation student himself and shared advice about how to succeed in college and future careers. Photo: Sean Ayres/UC Davis.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and go into office hours and talk to your professors,” he told students. “Don’t be afraid to learn.”

Coffey has climbed up the ranks at AT&T and along the way says he’s had 23 different jobs in the company. It’s critical to continue learning, he says, and to be flexible and prepared to work in several capacities as an engineer.

And, above all else, Coffey emphasizes the importance of perseverance. When he was the first in his family to go to college, he says many people tried to get him to change course and come back home. His parents regularly mentioned how expensive his education was and that he had better graduate soon. But Coffey told the students to stay focused.

“Achievement has gotten you to the starting line,” Coffey says. “Don’t let someone talk you out of being here. Don’t let yourself be cheated of what you’ve done for yourselves.”

Honoring family and reaching new heights

As the week-long orientation came to a close, Elsy Mora says that it was an invaluable experience.

“It’s made me feel so included,” Mora says. “I feel good here and it’s a really good transition.”

Another participant, Juan Lopez, of Petaluma, says that hearing from speakers who were first-generation students gave him hope. He points out that they were once like him, the first in their families to go to college and to trailblaze a path to higher education and a professional career.

“It’s been a great introduction, especially for us as first-generation because our families don’t really know how the system works,” he says. “A lot of speakers have come to show us it’s possible to succeed in this environment.”

Lopez’s family immigrated to California four years ago from Colombia. He says when he arrived he knew little English but managed to pick up the language quickly and integrate into his middle school. Now at the age of 17 he’s a freshman at UC Davis.

Both Mora and Lopez say they regularly think about how significant it is that they’ve made it to college.

Mora’s continual smile turns into a determined expression when she talks about her ultimate goal.

“I want to do agricultural engineering because my parents work in the fields and I’ve worked in the fields,” she says. “I just want to work with field workers and find ways for them not to work their backs so hard and have better working conditions.”

After the success of this year’s pilot, the LEADR Program plans to offer the Summer Bridge Program again next year.

–By Kelley Weiss