Las Vegas Sun

May 22, 2018

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Q+A: Educator draws on Mexican heritage in guiding first-generation college students


Leilani Carreño

Born and raised on the border town of Nogales, Ariz., Leilani Carreño was the first person in her family to attend and graduate from college.

Now, she has dedicated her career to working with Southern Nevadans with aspirations of doing the same.

Hired in June to lead the Nevada State College’s Nepantla program, Carreño, 32, works with 39 first-generation college students, providing education, mentorship and support to help graduates of Clark County high schools earn their degrees and find work in the Las Vegas Valley.

Carreño, a graduate of Northern Arizona University who worked at Coconino Community College, Arizona State, and her alma mater before being hired to lead Nepantla in June, said the pilot program's name translates to “in-between-ness” in the indigenous Mexican Nahuatl language.

“This program reflects my own experience,” Carreño said. “Not only can I relate with a lot of these first-generation students, I can be that support system for them, and I really enjoy it.”

She spoke with the Sun to talk about the first-generation college experience and her goals for the now 3-year-old Nepantla program.

Why did you stay in academia after graduating?

Part of Nepantla is a summer bridge component where students come and take classes for six weeks during the summer. I was a first-generation college student and my first opportunity to actually attend a university was through a summer bridge program much like Nepantla.

I really appreciated the support and the mentorship that I got as a first-generation college student. And so then, from there, as I worked toward my bachelor’s degree, I became a peer mentor for the program through my undergrad years at NAU. When I graduated, I went into the student affairs program because I wanted to work with student services and counseling support.

What drew you to the program at Nevada State?

The opportunity to work with our student demographic. All of our students are graduates of Clark County high schools and they mirror the demographics of our community. Fifty-two percent of our students are Hispanic or Latino, that was one thing, the ability to work with students like myself who I can relate to, as well as the opportunity to grow this program.

Last year the program had 30 students for the summer bridge. This year we have 39 students. In the next five years, we are planning to grow the program to serve up to 150 students.

How does a program do that? Does that mean adding more classrooms and adding more resources?

It means adding more faculty members to teach our courses, and streamlining the process so that all of our students still have that individualized help during our summer bridge. One of the things we put in place this year was our peer mentorship program; we actually have a cohort of peer mentors who volunteer their time and graduates of our summer bridge program, who come in and work with our students in groups. So they’re getting the information they need, but we’re not needing to add more staff. And it really ends up being a great strategy because students get the same amount of quality support from the university as they grow.

What inspired you to go to college?

I was born in Mexico, before moving right across the Nogales border to Arizona, but my dad was a U.S. citizen. He only went through eighth grade, and my mom (went through) some elementary school in Mexico. I am from a dual language-speaking household. My mom only speaks Spanish and my dad speaks both English and Spanish. Up until the time I started kindergarten, I didn’t know English.

I saw college as the only way out of the town where I was raised. At my lunch hour in high school, I had friends who said they were crossing the border to come back after lunch. I knew that car had something inside of it. I could see the drug culture thriving, the alcohol culture thriving — I thought it was necessary to leave that community and expose myself and try to grow in a different environment. I knew that was the only way out.

I have an older sister and a younger brother. And of the two, I’m still the only one that has a college degree.

What are some of the greatest challenges first-generation college students face?

The lack of trusting themselves to be able to make it, to do it. This program reaches out to them. We reach out to the students individually, the peer mentor does or the faculty member does. We reach out to their parents, community members, people we know are first in their lives.

We really build that community around the student so the student can’t just say, “I can’t do this, so I’m just not going to go to class.” We’re seeing a lot, with this generation in particular, a lack of believing in themselves that they can be successful in using the resources that they have.

A lot of first-generation college students are very shy. I remember with my own experience, I don’t know if it’s a social or cultural faux pas, that we don’t like to ask for help, and I think that happens with first-generation college students — sometimes they don’t know how to ask the right questions or they are afraid to say, “I don’t know how to do this, I need help.”

Students are sometimes ashamed to take part in tutoring or writing services because they think there’s a negative connotation associated with that on campus. We reframe this for our students so they see these services as support services — that they don’t have to just shut down because they don’t understand an academic concept.

There are a lot of resources to help them, and, actually, the most successful students use tutoring and use the services on campus. So that’s a huge thing as well as the lack of information out there regarding higher education.

The communication with parents, students and high schools and the college is lacking sometimes and so parents are expecting their children to go into the workforce out of high school because they don’t see the value in higher education. That’s some of what we try to bridge by having our students go back to their communities so that we can instill these values and build that higher education pipeline and college-going mentality, and future generations learn to see themselves on a college campus. One person in your family being a high school graduate and going to college is not the exception, but the rule.

Are there any programs like this in other Nevada schools?

Not in Nevada. I know in other states, like Arizona, there are probably a few of these bridge programs. In Nevada, we are actually the pilot program for this type of summer bridge program, and also a four-year program that follows consistent cohorts. Because we are funded by three donors, the Wynn Foundation, the Rogers Foundation and Switch Communications, we are able to help a lot of students that other institutions might not be able to. We can serve DACA students and undocumented students, because we’re not tied down by our fiscal responsibilities. We wouldn’t be able to use federal money to serve DACA or undocumented students, so we have freedom by these corporations that allows us to serve these special student operations.

Is the program directed toward Latinos?

That is a misnomer. We have a lot of students from different backgrounds. We have a lot of white students. 52 percent of our students are Hispanic or Latino. But race isn’t a factor in the application process.

What are some of the qualifications needed to get in the program?

Our students need to have a 2.7 high school GPA, they need to be a graduate of a Clark County high school and they also need to submit a two-essay application talking about what their experiences are and how their leadership in the past would make them a strong student, as well as what their interest is in higher education. So we like to have a commitment from students that they’ll stay at Nevada State College, and that they’ll graduate and become part of the community.

What we’re really trying to do here is build our next wave of business leaders and nurses and doctors that will stay in Clark County to support our economic system.

What kind of services does the program offer?

We offer a no-cost summer bridge program that includes one math class and one English class. So students pay no tuition for that. We also provide free transportation and then we have success workshops for students on things like study skills, time management, personality skills and we have a huge focus on social justice issues as they affect our community.

Once they’re done with the summer bridge portion, we have a first-year experience component where the cohorts take the same English class, English 102, and they take a communications class in the spring. We do a four-year program where we support students where they’re at. We do an outreach where we encourage our students to go back to their high school, go back to their community to volunteer their time as mentors, and students can also work internships in the community. We like to have them stay on campus, but a lot of them do get paid internships, and they do end up getting hired full time when they graduate.

We’re always looking for opportunities for our students to intern in the community and give back to the community. (We) encourage high school counselors to reach out to us, as we end next week on Aug. 5, the end of the summer bridge. We hope we’re creating an educational pipeline for high school students to be prepared to enter the workforce and assume leadership roles in Nevada.

Our students are trained to engage in their community, they’re diverse students, they have that diversity strength. They’re leaders and they know how to collaborate.

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