Coalition Seeks To Boost First-Generation Success


Madeleine Lee
Staff Reporter

A small circle of teaching assistants, professors and undergraduate students from the University of California, Santa Barbara gathered on Wednesday, April 13, for a mentorship workshop to learn how to address the needs of struggling students — with special emphasis on first-generation college attendees — to make sure every student makes it to the graduation stage and beyond.

The workshop, part of a series of grassroots gatherings hosted by Black Studies Ph.D candidate Holly Roose, builds on the efforts that contributed to the 9.3 percent increase in minority graduation rates reported by The Education Trust last month.

“There is a huge lie going around faculty and TA’s today,” said Roose, a first-generation student herself who struggled academically, “and that lie is that students are lazy, that students aren’t making grades because they don’t try or because they don’t care. I can tell you in the seven years I’ve been doing this type of work, I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of students and that has never been the case.”

First-generation students make up 42 percent of UCSB’s current freshmen, according to a campus profile by the Office of Budget and Planning. Through her work as assistant director of the McNair Scholars program at San Diego State University and nine years as a trained mentor, Roose has found that many of those students are underprepared for the transition from high school to college, for reasons that expand beyond the academic sphere.

“Many times, they’re sending their financial aid home to their families,” Roose said of the 20 mentees she has so far worked with on campus. “Some of them here are starving; many of them can’t get enough food to eat. That’s a problem that I run into a lot.”

Counseling and Psychological Services Director Jeanne Stanford emphasized the additional stress that first-generation students — who make up 34.2 percent of CAPS clientele — often feel as the first in their families to undergo the university experience.

“My parents were not educated in America,” said Stanford, a first-generation student and Jamaican immigrant. “They couldn’t give me any inside info about how to get along with faculty, or how to deal with the American educational system. When a student has to figure out the system for themselves, that’s an extra stressor that other students don’t deal with.”

Roose’s five-step mentorship approach seeks to help struggling students by focusing on accountability, time management and student well-being. She also emphasized the importance of building a network of TAs, faculty members, CAPS staff and other groups on campus to reinforce these principles from all angles.

Third-year global studies and sociology double major Josh Hudson is one of Holly’s mentees and helped facilitate Wednesday’s workshop. He is the first in his family to graduate high school.

“In high school, I had a 4.3 GPA,” Hudson said. “When I came to UCSB, I definitely struggled with my time management skills. And I knew I wanted to pursue higher education, but I wasn’t really sure how to get there.”

After meeting Holly through a history section his freshman year, Hudson began meeting with her for weekly check-ins, where he filled out a detailed planner — in which every minute of the week was planned out and accounted for — along with a list of future goals.

Two years later, Hudson is now a McNair scholar on track for graduate school, co-director of Associated Students Student Initiated Recruitment and Retention Committee (SIRRC) and resident assistant for the first-generation student floor at Santa Catalina where, in its first year of existence, Hudson has been able to assist his 70 residents by connecting them to resources he never had or knew of as a freshman.

Among the aspiring mentors, resources for emotional well-being were as great a concern as academic support. Roose recommended walking students in need of counseling support directly to CAPS.

“If you don’t walk a student to CAPS, they arrive, they’re told to sign up and then they might have to wait a week for an appointment,” said Roose. “If you do walk a student to CAPS, you introduce yourself, you say that you’re a TA and this is a student who needs to talk and that student will see someone immediately.”

The issue can partly be attributed to understaffing. Though CAPS does occasionally train new faculty members, Stanford noted that, “it’s not every year, nor is it institutionalized.”

The push for instructors like Roose, History Professors Paul Spickard and Mhoze Chikowero and the handful of TAs present at Wednesday’s workshop to educate themselves on student mental health has so far stayed at the grassroots level.

“My understanding is that it’s not necessarily mandated that every TA do it,” said Stanford of distressed student training for faculty and staff. “They can go through these sessions [voluntarily], but CAPS can’t mandate anything. It has to be the university.”

As one sign of progress, however, Stanford pointed to a recent CAPS proposal asking the UCSB Academic Senate to endorse the listing of mental health resources on every class syllabus. Other initiatives may require more time to sink in.

“We’ve been trying for so long to say that every new faculty member should have training in responding to distressed students,” Stanford said