Celebrating First-Gen College Students

First-generation college student Rivelle Jauregui,

First-generation college student Rivelle Jauregui,

Westmont celebrates the success of first-generation college students, faculty, and staff on First-Generation Celebration Day, Friday, Nov. 8. Of the 461 first-year and transfer students who arrived at Westmont in August 2019, 20 percent identified as the first in their family to attend college.

“It’s my goal this year to increase awareness of first-generation students,” says Sonya Welch, coordinator of academic support services at Westmont. “I’ve created buttons for those in our community to wear if they identify as first-generation students.”

Sonya Welch

Sonya Welch

One of those students, sophomore Rivelle Jauregui of Stockton, says her biggest obstacle was figuring out how to apply to colleges. “I had to navigate the different applications, figure out financial aid, and even plan college visits all on my own,” she says. “I had to gather most of my information from online research or by sitting for hours with my very patient high school counselor.”

Since Jauregui had to pay for college on her own, she also considered taking a year off to work and save up money. “Westmont was intentional about keeping in touch with me throughout the application process,” she says. “Most of our phone calls exceeded 30 minutes, and the admission counselors were very patient in answering all my questions. When I began to show hesitation about attending Westmont due to financial reasons, Irene Neller, vice president for enrollment, marketing and communications, stepped in and offered huge support.”

First-gen student Senaida Hernandez

First-gen student Senaida Hernandez

Senaida Hernandez, a first-generation student studying psychology at Westmont, created a new club, I’m First, for students like her who are the first in their families to attend college. She seeks to create a safe place for them to discuss the challenges they face, ask questions, feel a sense of belonging, and realize they are not alone.

“In high school, I belonged to a club called AVID, which I hope to make the model for I’m First,” she says. “AVID helped me and other first-gens tremendously, keeping us on track for college, offering test-taking tips and study sessions, providing information, and, most importantly, being a support group. I hope my club will do the same for students at the college level.”

Senaida came to Westmont from Santa Maria and admits she has struggled at times due to unfamiliarity with the intricacies of the college experience and challenges with finances and her social life. “Many first-generation students don’t know the steps necessary to prepare for and maintain college life,” she says. “Lacking the knowledge needed to succeed can be overwhelming. It’s tough enough for young adults to get accustomed to being their own advocate, but the challenges increase tremendously for first-gens as they struggle to learn how to properly study and approach their professors when they need help.”

Following a gap year, Senaida hopes to continue her education to pursue a career in psychiatric nursing or child psychology.

Westmont’s new efforts, coordinated by Welch, go a long way to providing support and awareness.