UTEP Supports First-Generation College Student Dreams
Last Updated on January 05, 2022 at 12:00 PM
Originally published January 05, 2022
By Laura L. Acosta
UTEP Marketing and Communications
Daniela Minjares’ parents came to the United States from Mexico with dreams of building a better future. They hoped to offer their children the opportunity to achieve something they could never dream for themselves — a college education.
Daniela Minjares’ father left school in the second grade to help support his family. Her mother came to the United States with a sixth-grade education. She proudly earned her GED in 2010.
Determined to provide their daughter and her two older brothers a different experience from their own, Minjares’ parents settled down in Anthony, Texas, on the outskirts of El Paso County, where Daniela Minjares graduated at the top of her class from Anthony High School in 2020.
Minjares’ parents believed that education was key to boosting their children’s prospects for upward mobility. They encouraged their daughter to work hard in school and earn straight-As. Thanks to her parents’ support, Minjares’ passion for learning set her on the path to becoming the first member of her family to attend college.
“My parents always pushed me to do my best in school, and I ended up graduating valedictorian of my class, so I guess all my hard work paid off!” said Minjares, who started at UTEP in fall 2020.
Breaking Down FirstGen Student Barriers
For many first-generation (FirstGen) college students at UTEP such as Minjares, earning a college degree is an awesome achievement for themselves and their entire families.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 30% of all entering freshmen are first-generation college students. At UTEP, 48.4% of new students who entered the University from Jan. 1 to Aug. 16, 2020, reported being the first in their family to attend college.
Yet despite their strong commitment to achieving a bachelor’s degree, students who are the first in their families to attend college often face more cultural, academic and financial barriers than other students do on their path to graduation.
FirstGen students lack the support from parents with college experience who can help them navigate the admissions process, financial aid, and locate on-campus resources. Students who are first generation also are more likely to be low-income, which means they cannot rely on family for financial support to complete their degrees.
To address the challenges faced by first-generation students, UTEP has launched new initiatives that focus on FirstGen students’ diverse backgrounds, strengths and skillsets to help them achieve their dream of a college education.
“We at UTEP and our colleagues across the nation have much to learn from our FirstGen students,” said John Wiebe, Ph.D., provost and vice president for academic affairs. “They bring with them a complex set of assets and challenges. They come to us with big aspirations, and it’s our job to help them succeed. Their success is key to the success of UTEP, the success of our region, and the social mobility of our culture.”
Supporting FirstGen Student Dreams
As America’s leading Hispanic-serving university, UTEP is invested in developing the talents of FirstGen students, particularly those who have grown up in the Paso del Norte region.
Nationwide, 48% of Hispanic students are first-generation students, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute.
At UTEP, 51% of graduating seniors in 2020-21 reported that they were first-generation college graduates.
When Miriam Limones started at UTEP in 2019, the nursing major struggled with not knowing how to register, how to check her financial aid status or how to log on to Blackboard to access her courses.
“When you don’t have someone that can explain these things to you, it makes life harder,” said Limones, a peer leader with UTEP’s Entering Student Experience (ESE) unit who mentors other first-generation students. “But from personal experience, something I would always tell myself is to keep pushing and fighting until you learn how to deal with that certain circumstance.”
In spring 2021, the University implemented new programming to help guide first-generation students from the beginning of their college career through its completion.
UTEP’s ESE unit, the Division of Student Affairs, and the Student Engagement and Leadership Center (SELC) collaborated on a series of initiatives designed to improve first-generation student outcomes. Organizers based the initiatives on the five pillars of ESE’s guiding principles, which are belongingness, agency, engagement, academic success and professional preparation.
“First-generation students come to UTEP with many strengths but can sometimes find college challenging to navigate,” said Denise Lujan, ESE director. “Our goal is to help our students transition to college by providing them the support they need to be academically successful and by helping students to build strong relationships with faculty, staff and peers. We want our first-generation students to feel like they have found their home at UTEP to become Miners for life.”
Advancing FirstGen Student Outcomes
UTEP’s first-generation program aims to work with students through their first 45 semester credit hours and improve student retention. Data indicates that among students who enroll at UTEP for the first time as freshmen, those who earn 45 or more semester credit hours within two years are 80% more likely to graduate within six years compared with other students who enrolled at the same time.
Programming includes a FirstGen student course and tutoring, advising, coaching and mentoring services to help students successfully complete their courses.
In summer 2021, 15 entering FirstGen students participated in UTEP Promote, a summer bridge program of weekly workshops that focused on academic success and professional preparation. Students also took part in social events to increase student engagement and networking opportunities. Lujan said that the goal of UTEP Promote was to help students transition to the fall semester and become mentors for new first-generation students.
The FirstGen mentorship program involves first-generation peer leaders, instructors, mentors, advisers and alumni who understand the unique needs of first-generation students because they have walked in their shoes.
“When you find someone that you can relate to and someone who can guide you through your struggles, you start to feel comfortable and understood,” Limones said. “I like to share my own experiences when I speak with my students. It always starts the connection and creates a bonding between my students and myself as their peer leader as they can see me as the place they can go to when they need help.”
Facilitating FirstGen Student Success
To facilitate the successful transition of first-generation students to UTEP, the University developed a section of UTEP’s UNIV 1301 course that targets the needs of students who are the first in their families to attend college.
The course allows FirstGen students to talk about their struggles and learn from their shared experiences.
Minjares, a psychology major, and 30 other students participated in the new UNIV 1301 first-generation course during the spring semester. The course was online but it switched to in-person instruction in fall 2021.
As part of the curriculum, students participate in enriching experiences to help them understand and develop their personal strengths, thus enabling them to succeed in college and beyond.
One of Minjares’s favorite assignments was reading “A Dream Called Home: A Memoir” by Reyna Grande, in which the author recounts her story of being a first-generation Latina university student and aspiring writer.
“I felt like I could really relate to her,” Minjares said. “(Grande) had so much to take care of but at the end of the day, she knew she could achieve it. It kind of gave me hope because my struggles aren't as great as hers, so I’m pretty sure I can finish school.”
Nicole Aguilar, SELC director and a UNIV 1301 instructor, emphasized the importance for students in the course to have access to first-generation instructors, mentors and alumni who overcame the challenges experienced by FirstGen students to graduate from UTEP.
“As a first-generation student myself, when I hear my students share their experiences, I know firsthand what they are going through,” said Aguilar, who earned a bachelor’s degree in organizational and corporate communications and a master’s degree in business administration at UTEP. She currently is pursuing an online doctoral degree in leadership and innovation at Arizona State University. “There are so many people who care about seeing FirstGen students succeed. We are a family at UTEP and for a lot of students, we are their connection to helping them enroll in college, stay in college, and finish college.”
Aguilar started at UTEP after graduating from Eastwood High School. Her first semester she took the UNIV 1301 course, which she said changed her entire UTEP experience.
Aguilar joined student organizations, worked on campus, participated in three internships and changed her major three times.
“I love sharing that part of my story with new students,” Aguilar said. “Upon entering college, I had no clue what I wanted to major in. All I knew was I dreamed of earning a college degree one day. Many students share this same experience. But by engaging in all these experiences, I met people who cared enough to guide me and help me find my passion.”
Like Aguilar, Minjares is exploring different majors to find the right career for her. She was happy to attend classes on campus for the first time during the fall 2021 semester after learning remotely during her first year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The UNIV 1301 course helped her connect with her fellow Miners and eased her stress about being a first-generation student.
“I feel like I have a weight lifted off my shoulders because I really got to know my classmates,” Minjares said. “It really made me feel like I wasn't alone anymore.”