The I Am First program, operated by Cal Poly Pomona’s Office of Student Success just held their first-gen college student week. The week was conducted through a virtual format, it included workshops and mixers that help first-gen students with college and the next step after college. Even in the virtual format, the program continues to prioritize mentorships between first-gen students and their faculty and staff mentors.
Approximately 58% of CPP’s students are first-generation students, defined as a college student whose parents or guardians did not receive a bachelor’s degree in the United States, according to the I Am First program. The program currently assists 46 students who are partnered with a staff or faculty mentor.
Samuel Nieto, a staff member for the Office of Student Success helped lead and coordinate one of the program’s most recent events, First-Gen College Student Week, which ran from Nov. 2 to Nov. 5. The weeks’ worth of programming was created to help promote the I Am First program and inform participants about a variety of topics including undergraduate research, financial aid, scholarship essays and mentorship
“If it wasn’t for the mentorship I’ve had in my life, I don’t think I would be here talking to you,” Nieto said. “As a first-gen male of color I’m going to be honest with you, sometimes you don’t find people that look like you as a mentor.”
For former first-generation students like Nieto and current students now, having a mentor can change the trajectory of their life entirely. Therefore, the primary focus of the program is to partner first-generation students with faculty members who were first-generation students themselves.
Faculty and staff who were once first-generation students and wish to participate as mentors, complete a resume for the program. Based off those answers, students seeking mentorship decide who they relate to most based off things like someone’s area of study, personal hobbies or ethnic background.
Michael Page, chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, serves as a mentor in the program. His parents both have their high school diplomas, but no college experience —leaving Page in a world that was foreign to him. When in college, he relied heavily on other students in his same program to guide and mentor him. His department was a very small tight knit community.
“I kind of got some of these same experiences because I was in a very small department, often times the faculty members would host the majors at their house for dinner,” Page said. “This is how I decided to go to grad school because everyone else was doing it.”
Sara Garcia, a fifth-year nutrition student with an emphasis in dietetics, has participated in the program since its inception in 2019. She was involved in a similar program during her time at Mt. San Antonio College. For Garcia, finding someone raising a young child and going to school like herself was an important consideration when selecting a mentor.
“I didn’t realize the challenges that would come with being a parenting student, I knew there were challenges being a first-generation college student, it wasn’t until CPP that I felt so alone as a parenting student so I knew that was one thing I wanted for sure,” Garcia said.
Jack Fong, a professor in the Sociology Department, was a first-generation student when he attended CPP; his mother had an eighth-grade education and his father a 12th-grade education.
“My mother was a survivor of the Vietnam war, my father, who recently passed away, survived the Japanese invasion of China. Their lives were ruined, I mean they couldn’t even go to school if they desperately wanted to because their schools were bombed to smithereens,” Fong said.
For Fong, the decision to aid other first-generation students was easy.
“We’re like a coach, to tell you how to get to the finish line, and we’re a coach that fully understands that you’re coming in with a few disadvantages,” Fong added.