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How faculty mentors can help first-generation students succeed

A new initiative by the University of California system uses first-generation faculty to guide first-generation students, with the goal of decreasing dropout rates. As part of our series Rethinking College, Hari Sreenivasan visits UCLA to see how the program is working.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we continue our special series on Rethinking College.

    Tonight, we focus on so-called first-generation college goers. This year, 45 percent of freshman in the University of California system are the first in their family to seek a four year degree.

    Hari Sreenivasan visited UCLA to see how campuses are responding to the challenge.

    It's part of our weekly series Making the Grade.

  • Lorrie Frasure-Yokley:

    I am a first-generation scholar. I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Professor Lorrie Frasure-Yokley says her path to becoming the first tenured woman of color at UCLA's Political Science Department has shaped who she is.

  • Lorrie Frasure-Yokley:

    I'm a product of my mom, a high school education, and my dad, an eighth-grade education.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And that's important to these students, who are themselves the first in their families to go to college.

    Frasure-Yokley is taking part in a new initiative from California's U.C. system that uses first-generation faculty to guide first-generation students.

  • Lorrie Frasure-Yokley:

    I'm teaching this class today because I want you guys to be OK with being the first. I want to be able to validate your concerns, and your fears, and your frustrations with being first-generation, because I have been there.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Last fall, university administrators asked 900 first-generation faculty and staff, like Frasure-Yokley, to become mentors. The goal is to decrease dropout rates.

    Nationally, only 40 percent of first-generation college students make it to graduation.

  • Lorrie Frasure-Yokley:

    We want our first-generation students to thrive. We want them to feel like they belong here and that they're going to be here for four years through graduation.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    University of California president Janet Napolitano-

  • Janet Napolitano:

    Admissions are one thing. Enrollment is one thing. But graduation is — is the thing.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But to succeed in a demanding academic environment like UCLA, the first-gen students have to overcome something called the impostor syndrome.

  • Lorrie Frasure-Yokley:

    One of the definitions of impostor syndrome is students who worked really hard to get into campus, but they still are carrying with them, like, a sense that they don't truly belong, that, at any moment, someone is going to come and tap them on their shoulder and say, you know what, we made a mistake, right?

    For first-generation scholars who are carrying around with them impostor syndrome, you are not allowing yourself to thrive.

    Something as fundamental as saying, hey, I deserve to go to office hours every week if I want to. I deserve to have someone sort of sit down with me during their office hours, and I can ask questions, right, one on one. I deserve that opportunity.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    UCLA senior Violet Salazar knows what impostor syndrome feels like. Salazar helped create an entire dorm floor dedicated to incoming first-generation students, after her own freshman experience proved difficult.

  • Violet Salazar:

    It was kind of hard to get to know people when you always felt like you were, I guess, lesser than them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Because you're the first?

  • Violet Salazar:

    Because I'm first-gen, or because I am Latina, and also just coming from a very low socioeconomic background.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    On the day we visited, the first-generation dorm hosted a meeting led by student Clara Nguyen, a first-gen student herself who also works with UCLA's mental health resources.

  • Clara Nguyen:

    How do you practice resilience as a first-generation student?

    It's really easy to get caught up in your failures, I feel like, in college. So it's really important to be resilient, to keep in mind that it's OK, and you can, like, recover.

    So, thoughts are the way that you think about things, like, oh, man, I think I'm going to be bad on this test. Or, if I start getting nervous, like, my heart starts beating really fast or I start sweating, that's kind of a physical symptom, and then that might affect how I behave.

    What is an example of how your thoughts, behaviors and physical symptoms like kind of come together?

  • Student:

    You first think like, oh, my God, I didn't study enough, I'm going to fail, blah, blah, blah. And then it's like I start sweating a lot, and my palms are sweating, that I can't even hold still the pencil.

    And then I actually start forgetting things. And I'm like, I studied this. What's going on? And then I forget things, and then I actually fail.

  • Clara Nguyen:

    One of the techniques that we use to combat that cycle is called mindfulness.

    But being mindful is basically honing into those thoughts that you have and trying to control that environment around you.

    I wanted her to notice physical symptoms, like the hands sweating, to kind of manage your thoughts better, and say, hey, you know, I'm not unprepared for this test. I have the skills to do it.

    Then maybe she can try to tell her body to calm down, and then those things will start coming back to her brain.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Many first-generation students are also balancing the guilt of not contributing to their family's income when they're away at school.

  • Clara Nguyen:

    You might have a financial struggle, so you should go to work, or you have siblings. You need to take care of them before you get to do school. I think those things are hard to let go of when you get here.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And, for some, there is the added stress of immigration status.

    Freshman Jaquelin Tafolla, who is a U.S. citizen, worries that, in the current political climate, friends from her home community could be suddenly deported.

  • Jaquelin Tafolla:

    And there are millions of families that are struggling, whether it's having that scary moment where you never know if your family member is going to get deported, or you never know.

    There can be a moment in your life where one day you're happy with your family sitting at dinner, and the next day, your mom, your Dad, your brother, your sister, you find out you're getting deported. There's like that moment where you know that can happen. So it's very scary.

    Sorry.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    University administrators hope their new focus on mentoring first-generation students will help both students and their families succeed.

  • Janet Napolitano:

    We know that our first-gen students within just a few years of graduating are making more than their entire families.

    We also know that they're tremendous contributors to the state of California, to the economy of California. And it's what higher education is there for, particularly public higher education, to open those doors of opportunity, and to really give meaning to the cliched phrase the American dream.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In Los Angeles, I'm Hari Sreenivasan for the "PBS NewsHour."

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