it was going to be university life, "recalled Karina Alcantara Guerrero, a third-year student at Linfield University.
Alcantara Guerrero went to a high school in Portland that, according to her, was very racially diverse. So, he said, enrolling in Linfield, which is about 64% white, was a bit jarring. On top of that, being the first person in her family to go to college meant she was unfamiliar with campus culture.
He said he can't imagine what it would be like to start a private college in McMinnville. It has been as without the First Scholars program, a program focused on supporting the success of first generation students.
“It definitely helped me not to be afraid to ask questions, because that was a fear that I had as a first generation student,” he said.
First Scholars pairs incoming first-generation students with student and staff mentors. It also awards students scholarships based on financial need throughout their time in college. Linfield defines first-generation students as those whose parents did not complete a four-year college degree.
Alcantara Guerrero was in the first cohort of the program, which is now in its third academic year. In her third year at Linfield, Alcantara Guerrero is a student coordinator for the program and also a mentor.
Without being on the program its first year, he said, his experience at Linfield probably would have been very different.
"I definitely feel that it would have been much more difficult," said Alcantara Guerrero.
First-generation students at Linfield make up 34% of the total campus population. For freshmen this fall, that percentage is even higher: 42%.
Along with funding scholarships and tutoring first-generation students, First Scholars also offers students activities and meetings throughout the year. And new students attend a specialized orientation one week before the start of the school year.
First-generation students are automatically enrolled in the program before their first year, but can opt out if they wish.
The program received a Beacon award earlier this month, an annual award from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, or NWCCU, the region's leading accreditation body for postsecondary institutions. Linfield was one of three recipients, winning in the category of institutions with fewer than 2,000 students.
NWCCU President Sonny Ramaswarmy says the Beacon Award recognizes institutional achievements related to student success. Specifically, there must be tangible evidence of student achievement, and whatever the program or plan, it must be possible for other institutions to follow suit.
"We want our institutions to be able to replicate the wonderful work that Linfield has done," Ramaswarmy told OPB. "It's really a multi-pronged approach to be able to make sure students are successful."
The retention rate for first-generation Linfield students is currently around 80%, on par with students whose family members have completed college.
Linfield does not have retention rates available for first-generation students prior to the program, but says that for the past five years, first-generation students regularly graduated at a rate of about 54%. That compares with a 61% graduation rate for all students, over the same time period.
Those numbers are similar to those shown by Oregon's higher education system. According to data from the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, the state college completion rate for non-first-generation students last academic year was 62%. For first-generation students, the rate was 51%.
Linfield administrators expect the graduation rate for first-generation students to increase substantially once members of the initial cohort of the First Scholars program begin graduating in 2023.
Linfield Associate Vice President for Student Retention and Success, Gerardo Ochoa, is one of the creators and leaders of the program. He himself was a first-generation college graduate.
“In many spaces, in higher education, they weren't designed for people of color, for first-generation students; they were not designed for women. Many times, we as administrators have to really deconstruct the way higher education happens for people who were intentionally excluded, ”Ochoa said. “We have to re-imagine how education will unfold for the new demographics of students.”
Ochoa said the pandemic disrupted the program's pilot year, which began in the fall of 2019, resulting in many meetings happening in limited numbers in person or online.
Still, the program worked to provide students with networking and friendship-building, things that Ochoa says are crucial in helping new first-generation students avoid “culture mismatch,” basically culture shock.
Ochoa said that first-generation students often thrive in an interdependent culture, "where you collaborate with family and friends, elementary teachers, you do things as a team and together."
However, he said, many colleges and universities operate under an independent culture, where students are expected to figure things out for themselves.
“I really want you, as an institution, to work towards having a college-ready student rather than having college-ready students,” said Ochoa.
Linfield student Alcantara Guerrero said she definitely felt that cultural mismatch during her freshman year, but the First Scholars program helped alleviate it.
"In the first generation show, there were a lot [students of color] and that really helped me because we were able to create a support system for each other, and that's where I met a lot of my close friends," he said.
Alcantara Guerrero said that he wants other colleges and universities to consider similar programs, "because it makes a difference."
That's something Linfield President Miles Davis also had in mind, being himself a first-generation college student.
Davis said he hopes that the First Scholars program that receives a Beacon Award will encourage other institutions to take steps to support first-generation students, beyond simply recruiting and enrolling them.
“What do you want to do to meet those students where they are? That's what Linfield is doing, ”Davis said. “We're not saying, 'Ok, you'll just come to our institution, you'll settle for all the things we've always done,' because I can guarantee you they won't keep those students."
Davis says it's crucial that students new first-generation students connect with other first-generation students, staff, and faculty.
people you're bringing, ”he said.