Las Vegas Sun

October 13, 2019

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How students are overcoming the nation’s education inequality

First Generation College Carlos Holguin

Wade Vandervort

Carlos Holguin poses for a photo at Gold Spike in downtown Las Vegas prior to his band’s set, Saturday, July 16, 2017. Carlos—a first-generation college graduate—received his music degree from UNLV.

First-generation college students

Students participate during a class taught by Leila Pazargadi at the Liberal Arts & Sciences Building at Nevada State College in Las Vegas, Nev. on July 11, 2017.  The class is part of a summer bridge program aimed to assist first-generation college students prep & become aware resources available throughout there education. Launch slideshow »

First-generation College Graduate Carlos Holguin

Carlos Holguin poses for a photo at Gold Spike in downtown Las Vegas prior to his band's set, Saturday, July 16, 2017. Carlos—a first-generation college graduate—received his music degree from UNLV. Launch slideshow »

Standing on the stage of the Thomas & Mack Center for the 2014 College of Southern Nevada graduation, Carlos Holguin couldn’t quite believe it. Not only was he the first in his family to go to college, he was the commencement speaker and Regents’ Scholar, an honor that would pay for his further education at UNLV.

“I worked for this, and I never gave up,” said Holguin, now 24 and a UNLV graduate. “But I know I didn’t do it on my own.”

Holguin reflects the reality of many first-generation college students, described by the Postsecondary National Policy Institute as largely nonwhite, from low-income backgrounds and facing “myriad financial, academic and social barriers to entering and completing college.”

Those barriers affect our outlook as a nation, especially as a nation with an immigrant population that has tripled since 1970. But educational inequity isn’t limited to new Americans and their children. Data from 2014 released last year by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that children with the potential to be the first in their families to reach college comprised more than 80 percent of Hispanics and Pacific Islanders, more than 75 percent of African-Americans and Native Americans, 51 percent of whites and 36 percent of Asians.

Referencing those stats in its 2017 trend report, the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education urged Americans to think of society as an organism of interconnected individuals, and to consider that the gaps between their opportunities are growing. “Whether or not we believe that higher education is a civil right, an essential element of a full democratic society or a fundamental requirement for achieving the American dream ... higher education opportunity and outcomes remain highly inequitable,” the report asserts. “More work is required to ensure that all youths have the opportunity to use their creative potential to realize the many benefits of higher education and advance the well-being and progress of the nation.”

Though they persist and succeed on their own grit, local students blazing this trail back up the argument that help is instrumental in getting in the door and walking out with a degree. And experts agree the return on investment can echo for generations.

It starts in high school

While he was born to a single, working mother who never attended college, Holguin said college was a hot topic at home. He just didn’t know how he was going to get there.

First-generation student snapshot

Nayelli Rico-Lopez is gearing up for her first semester at college, something her parents knew and stressed the importance of, despite never getting there. “They just knew it was what would open doors for me,” she said.

Being an undocumented immigrant, Rico-Lopez knew she couldn’t apply for federal aid. But several other scholarships are providing her with a full-ride to Nevada State College, including TheDream.US. The program partners with more than 75 colleges to exclusively help Dreamers who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. More than 1,700 have benefited, and their stats are impressive: 74 percent are first-generation; 100 percent are low-income; 70 percent work while attending college; 85 percent persist and graduate, with an average GPA of 3.2.

In making the case for investing in these disadvantaged students, TheDream.US cites data showing that college graduates typically earn 66 percent more than high school graduates and are more than twice as likely to be employed, twice as likely to volunteer and almost twice as likely to vote. It also offers the estimate that by 2020, two-thirds of job openings will require postsecondary education or training.

During his sophomore year at Canyon Springs High School, an opportunity presented itself. A counselor from the College of Southern Nevada gave a presentation on its high school program, which offers Clark County School District juniors and seniors a chance to fulfill graduation requirements while completing college credits. CCSD foots the bill for up to a dozen approved credits per semester, and James McCoy, CSN associate vice president of academic affairs, said many beneficiaries were hoping to be the first in their families to break through to that level.

“We have students who are graduating with their associate degree before graduating high school,” he said.

In the 2015-16 academic year, 445 students from 11 high schools attended CSN High School and obtained 6,623 college credits.

Also last fall, CSN went through a pilot partnership with Mojave High School, which has struggled with academic performance (the Las Vegas Sun reported that in 2010, the school saw more than 1,000 students transfer because of its persistently low achievement). McCoy said it was about changing the culture for many of the students in the school. “For them, the goal post was finishing high school,” he said. “We wanted to create a pipeline (from high school to college) to help change that culture.” Of the 60 Mojave students admitted to the dual-credit program, about 90 percent were first-generation, including one McCoy can’t forget. He says the boy’s mother was moved to tears by the change she saw in him. “He was going down the wrong path, hanging out with bad influences and getting bad grades,” McCoy said, adding that the student recently graduated from high school with six credits under his belt and a spot at CSN this fall.

But securing a spot isn’t necessarily the biggest worry. Many first-generation students stumble over financing. Nobody in their household has done this, so they don’t understand how to get financial aid. “They automatically assume the only way to pay for college is to go into debt,” McCoy said. CSN’s high school initiatives show them different options at a crucial time. “I’ve had parents who would say to me, ‘I had no idea this was a reality for my kid.’ ”

Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) also works with high school students in Nevada. The nonprofit organization came to the state in 2013 and has a presence in multiple Clark County high schools — 25 and counting. JAG specialists mentor students who are mostly at-risk or on the path to becoming credit-deficient.

Within that group, JAG breaks down the strong association between parents’ educational attainment and their children’s expectations for themselves.

“It isn’t as simple as, ‘Did their parents go to college?’ ” said René Cantu, executive director of JAG Nevada, which provides workforce development for students and plugs the notion of college. In turn, CSN waives the application fee for anyone interested in diving into that next level. Seeing a letter of acceptance can help students realize how obtainable higher education is.

Mentorship for the transition

Holguin arrived at CSN in fall 2011 with 37 credits and an eagerness to tackle a psychology degree. But he still had questions about this new world.

“Graduating high school doesn’t always mean you’re college-ready,” McCoy said. “They have to adjust. There are huge academic buildings and a new student population that might not look like you.”

Some schools have seen this struggle and try to aid the adjustment with “wraparound” services such as BUMP Up, which provides two years of mentorship from campus and community volunteers to underrepresented male students focused on either college success or career readiness (student testimonials online give credit to mentors such as CSN student affairs specialist Santarpia McNeill and North Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Kalani Hoo).

TRIO participants

The Student Support Services branch of TRIO was authorized in 1968 by the Higher Education Act of 1965. Its 2016 Fast Facts reveal that the majority of participants are both low-income and first-generation college students, representing 66 percent of grantees (68,314) at four-year institutions and 69 percent (69,271) at two-year institutions. Nicholas Goodsell, the TRIO program director at CSN, said the program has been at the college since 2000. Each year, it accepts 200 applicants planning to attend CSN and sees them through the next two years as they work toward their bachelor's. “We become a one-stop-shop for them,” said Goodsell, who once was a first-generation student who used TRIO. “It makes a difference in somebody’s life if you’re seeing them consistently.” When the students are finishing up at CSN, their TRIO adviser will help them figure out next steps and connect them with TRIO programs at other institutions such as UNLV.

TRIO Student Support Services is another option funded through the U.S. Department of Education that provides academic support to low-income, first-generation and disabled students working toward an associate degree or planning to transfer to a four-year institution. CSN, Nevada State College and UNLV all have grants to fund TRIO programs.

The latter became Holguin’s goal, and he said his TRIO mentor went beyond the call of duty. When Holguin was close to finishing his psychology degree, he realized he wanted to pursue a degree and career in music.

“Instead of saying, ‘Just graduate,’ he said, ‘Let’s see what we can do to make this happen.’ He saw I was passionate about this,” Holguin said, “and he was there to help.”

Influencing the next in line

Holguin is now a UNLV grad living his dream as a jazz musician.

“I remember I got home one night, and my mom wanted to talk to me,” Holguin said.

His younger brother had an assignment at school asking what he wanted to be. She pulled it out and showed Holguin the answer, messy handwriting and all.

“It said, ‘I want to be a college student,’ ” Holguin said. “My mom looked at me and said, ‘Mijo, that’s because of you.’ ”

Leaders in Training

Leaders in Training by the numbers

From 2015-16 impact report:

• 80 students in five cohorts across nine CCSD schools

• 52 percent female and 48 percent male

• 75 percent Latino, 16 percent Asian, 7 percent white, 2 percent Native American

• 88 percent retention rate

• 100 percent 4-year college acceptance and matriculation

• 11,110 volunteer hours since 2012

When she was in high school, Erica Mosca was part of a college-access program that helped first-generation students. With the resources provided and her own hard work, she made it to Boston University and graduated summa cum laude in 2008.

Mosca came to Las Vegas with Teach for America, and her fifth-grade students made quite an impression.

“They came from the same socioeconomic background that I did,” she said.

After earning a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at UNLV, she left the classroom to obtain another master’s in education and policy management at Harvard before returning to Las Vegas. In 2012, after working as a special projects manager for CCSD under Superintendent Dwight Jones, Mosca reconnected with her former students. They inspired the launch of Mosca’s nonprofit, Leaders in Training (LIT), which serves as a support system throughout high school and a primer on social justice. During their sophomore year, LIT students focus on career apprenticeships and internships. Their junior year, they go through ACT prep and college mentorship. When they get to their senior year, they are ready to apply for college.

From Day One, Mosca connects with their parents to talk about essentials such as financial aid.

“By the time we get to apply for college, we’ve already been talking about this for years. ... (And) it will take years to see the full extent of our mission carried out,” Mosca said of LIT’s greater goal: to inspire these students to come back and be the change within their worlds. The nonprofit stresses that education sparks leadership, which could address the fact that diverse communities often don’t see themselves reflected in their local, state and national representatives.

Natalie Pen, who just finished her first year at UNR, is a product of LIT. While her father attended community college, Pen said Mosca’s program didn’t just put college within reach — it gave her the confidence to attend a school away from home.

“Leaders in Training showed me the door,” Pen said. “It was up to me to walk through it.”


A turnaround story

During his first day at Nevada State College in 2012, Chaise Mitchell was doing fine until he got into his math class.

“I was so lost,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on.” So he left.

Mitchell is a long way from who he was his freshman year. The 23-year-old will graduate next spring and head to graduate school to become an English professor. The turnaround was rooted in a class he took from Pazargadi, who co-founded the Nepantla program to give first-generation students a boost. Mitchell fell in love with English, the philosophy behind critical interpretation and the role of comics as works of literature. Mitchell even became a course assistant for Pazargadi.

“She made me feel like I belonged there,” he said.

Knowing that freshman year can present one of the toughest challenges for first-generation college students, Nevada State College offers a summer course to ease them into their new environment.

Leila Pazargadi, an assistant professor of English and co-founder of the larger program, Nepantla, said its name comes from a Chicano term in literature or art that means “in-between-ness” or “being in the middle,” a feeling most of her students wrestle with.

During the summer-long introduction, these new NSC students take their first math and English classes, along with seminars on time and money management. The program answers basic questions, like how to find resources at the school and navigate campus. Nepantla gets them ready for the fall, and Pazargadi said it helped them look at college from a different perspective.

“We help them think about more than just getting a degree, getting a job and making money,” she said. “We empower them to think about how they can cultivate their education to be a better person and make a difference in their community.”

NSC does outreach in 15 high schools to attract students to Nepantla, accepting 40 into each cohort. After the summer bridge, their progress is tracked for four years so mentorship can be provided throughout the college experience, in addition to opportunities for community service and cultural enrichment.

The program saw its first 10 graduates walk in commencement this spring.

“And many of them aren’t stopping there,” Pazargadi said. “Many of them are working to go to grad school or law school.”

The importance of institutional resources

Summer bridge

CSN is starting a summer bridge called Catalyst to help high school seniors who are not college-ready. Similar to Nepantla, students would take college-level English, math and reading courses and receive mentorship and access to various workshops to help them prepare for campus life.

The moment Jazelle Erives got her diploma was a win for her entire family, including the younger siblings who watched how hard she worked for it.

“People would always joke I was going to get pregnant in high school or right after I graduated,” said the 21-year-old NSC graduate, who just started a job as a nurse at Centennial Hills Hospital and is happy to disappoint. “There is a lot of negativity about minorities and first-generation students. I wanted to prove them all wrong.”

Born and raised in Las Vegas, Erives attended Northwest Career and Technical Academy. Being at a magnet school, there was frequent talk of college readiness and seeking further education. Because of her commitment to family and helping with her siblings, Erives wanted to stay close to home. She knew NSC had a strong nursing program, and the school happened to be launching Nepantla at that time, which Erives learned of while looking for scholarships through the Latin Chamber of Commerce.

“I think without the program, I would have felt isolated,” she said. “I know I would have had the willpower to start, but I don’t know if I would have finished.”

Nepantla facilitators kept in touch with Erives throughout college, and for multiple summers, she has gone back to talk to new enrollees about what to expect and what she has learned along the way, including her mentor-driven urge to seek a master’s degree.

Institutional resources make a huge difference. But the stories of first-generation students have untold power to push the next generation to meet and maybe even raise the bar. It might be through a volunteer speaking engagement, or across the kitchen table.

Batteries Included

Before Lisa Morris Hibbler became the city of Las Vegas’ director for youth development and social innovation, she was a first-generation college kid who went on to earn a master’s from UNLV. Through the city’s 10-year-old partnership with the district, Batteries Included, Hibbler now intervenes on behalf of CCSD kids at risk of dropping out of school. Some of the students are in the same boat she was. Most come from schools with high rates of enrollment in free and reduced-price lunch.

While the focus is helping high schoolers find their academic footing, Batteries Included invites them on field trips and college tours both locally and in California and Utah, and last year expanded to include college freshmen. “We recognized that those students need support during their first year,” Hibbler said.

The Washington Post last year reported that money is not the primary driver of higher dropout rates among first-generation students: “Even when students manage to cobble together scholarships, loans or gifts from relatives or churches, once they actually get into college, they typically find they have a whole new set of unanticipated barriers: academic, social and cultural, as well as their own internal self-doubt.”

Hibbler said one of the best ways to empower them is to bring in former program participants to share their journeys.

“They have been where they are at,” she said. “They can say, ‘Hey, this may not make sense what (Batteries Included facilitators) are talking about now, but it will makes sense down the road. So keep doing what they tell you to do.’ ”

Additional resources

In addition to the programs featured in this package, here are other local and national avenues for finding support, from funding for tuition to portals for connecting with advocacy groups, mentors and other first-generation college students.

• SB391: The Nevada Promise Scholarship is a “last-dollar” program that covers tuition to community college not covered by federal aid or other scholarships. It provides for remedial coursework and requires no minimum GPA or SAT score.

To be considered, students must apply for federal aid through FASFA, then inquire with CCSD or their community college of choice for a mentor and information about the application process. Maintaining eligibility for the funding requires that students complete 20 hours of community service each year they’re in school.

UNLV Center for Academic Enrichment and Outreach: Serving 26,000 residents of Clark County, the center is a one-stop shop for federally funded opportunity programs designed to serve students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It provides direct support from middle school through potential pursuit of a postbaccalaureate degree. It also is home to UNLV’s TRIO program.

UNLV ​1st Generation Club: The student club provides a network for first-generation, transfer or other nontraditional students to adjust to college life and challenges. It also directs members to a range of resources, including tutoring, scholarships (and how to get them) and career and professional development services.

I’m First: The merger between college-access juggernauts Strive for College and the Center for Student Opportunity resulted in a dynamic online portal for existing and aspiring first-generation students to have a dialogue about reaching their goals and to search a listing of schools that support first-generation students.

First Scholars: Partnering with six major public universities, the program combines research-based strategies for college success with a business mindset. Incoming scholars are paired with a peer mentor to maximize engagement.

QuestBridge This platform connects high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds with leading colleges and further opportunities. It has matched more than 4,000 students to college partners with full-ride scholarships.

Who qualifies as a first-generation college student?

There is disagreement in the education community about the definition. The broadly recognized view is that “first-generation” describes individuals who are the first in their families to attend college. But what if they have parents or other close relatives who reached that level and just never finished? Should the term apply only to those attending four-year colleges? What really constitutes the first-generation experience? In late 2015, a research team from the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education released a study illustrating the disparity in population size based on the definition. It applied eight versions to 7,300 college students, finding that “first-generation” status ranged from 22 to 77 percent. Under the most basic definition:

• 30 percent of American college students are the first in their family (24 percent are both first-generation and low-income).

• about 60 percent of the student body at Nevada State College is the first in their families to pursue higher education.

• 24 percent of undergraduates were first-generation students during the 2016 fall semester at UNLV. Internal studies show that about 75 percent of those who enroll persist in their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.

Editor’s note: Author Michael Lyle was the first in his family to graduate college. While attending high school in Knoxville, Tenn., he participated in a college-access program that helped 70 African-American students from across the county take part in an immersion experience. “I’ve been very aware about the factors that have helped me,” Lyle says.

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