People often talk about support and accessibility for first generation students, how important do you think support is for all students?

Support for all students is extremely important. I do not think that support for all students is excluded from the conversation or considered less important when discussing ways to better support students who are first-generation. However, conversations surrounding the distribution of resources and the level of support for first-generation students are a high priority because an effort to create opportunities for underrepresented students will create a ripple effect and directly impact the achievement and knowledge gaps that are present today.

What forms of support do you think are most often missing?

I would say that the biggest missing piece for students is the amount of information, or lack of information, that students and their families have access to. In fact, there are things that some students and families simply have no clue about whatsoever. The old saying “you don't know what you don't know” is very real for all students and situations keep coming up that were not on their radar time and time again.

How to apply to college, the actual cost of going to college, hidden costs, the different types of majors and degrees that are available, course placement, how to pay for college, graduate school, etc. are all pieces of information that the majority of students have to learn as they go, or else ask someone for guidance. If a student does not have information on who to ask for guidance or when to ask for help, that creates a problem within itself.

There is a plethora of support areas that are often 'missing', but in my opinion, some of these obstacles can be avoided with greater access to information.

Why is support such a vital part of the college application process?

The most important step in every process is the first step - getting started. There are thousands of different colleges and universities in the United States. In particular, New Mexico (my state) has 27 to choose from! They each have their own culture, admission standards, costs, degree programs, student populations, support programs, deadlines, locations, application fees, etc. Wanting to go to college and searching for schools is the easy part. Finding the right school and actually submitting the application is the hard part.

Searching for the right school on your own and not knowing where to start can be extremely overwhelming and frustrating. This can lead students to believing that 'maybe college isn't for me' or delaying the process of applying altogether.

A delay in the application process can also lead to problems. Some schools have priority application dates that correlate with scholarships and priority access to selecting classes. As a result, they may have to take classes at an inconvenient time, or they may have less financial aid to help pay for their courses. These consequences are large prices to pay for a delay in submitting an application; having support along this process is vital.

What does good support look like to you?

This question is tough! I do not believe that there is one definition of good support because each student interaction will require something different. So, I guess my response will be more of a cop out… It depends!

From a parent or guardian?

Encouragement. Parents may not know all the steps of going to college, but they should encourage their students to pursue college. Starting to prepare for college can start on day one. Parents can encourage students to read more books, develop great study habits, establish saving habits, and learn how to budget. Parents can also talk to their students about different goals, dream jobs, and potential schools. Later, they can get students involved in their community and encourage them to give back, as this can help with scholarship applications.

Students are where they are today because of the support of their parents, so that support needs to continue, especially during the high-stress time of going to college.

At UNM, we've created a step by step guide that offers students and families some suggestions when it comes to preparing for college. This guide offers suggestions and action items for all grade levels (K-12). I'd encourage all institutions to create a similar guide.

From a mentor?

Be there. Mentors are selected because the student believes that they can grow from the interaction. Support can be helping students look for colleges, apply to colleges, revise essays, or it can be as simple as offering an ear to the student; the most important part is being there. The student already built trust in you so being readily and consistently available is key.

From a school?

Embrace and empower. Students come from many backgrounds and experiences; it is up to the school to meet the students where they are and help them get to where they want to go.

One student may be a first-generation student needing help applying to college, while another student may be a third-generation college student who is homesick. There is not a 'one size fits all' formula but creating an environment to support all students with whatever they need is important.

In addition, schools should empower students to own and embrace their personal stories. Normalizing student experiences and putting inclusive excellence at the forefront will pave the way for students to get through college.

How can the overall community attitude towards education affect a student's college aspirations?

I'm a firm believer in the idea that we are a product of our environment and we can talk things into existence. I believe that communities should embrace a cultural shift in the way they talk about college aspirations. For example, rewording everyday conversations to have a positive spin on going to college is key.

Personally, I have adopted a new way of talking to my nieces and nephews and refuse to ask them: “are you going to college?”. Instead, I ask questions such as: “where do want to go to college?” and “what do you want to study in college?". The idea is that I want them to be fully aware that going to college is a reality and they can do it.

For students who don't have the traditional parent/guardian role/figure in their life where can they turn?

Me!!! (I'm being serious)

Reaching out to other first-generation students, possibly from their hometown, who had a similar experience and have succeeded is very important. A mentor can be a source of encouragement, motivation, and advice.

There are hundreds of individuals on every campus who love helping students. As a professional staff member, I have yet to meet someone who applied to work at an institution of higher education for the money. On the other hand, I cannot name one individual who isn't passionate about helping students. Institutions are full of faculty and staff who chose a career that allows them to give back to students by making the journey to graduation smoother than their own experience.

In my case, I am a first generation college student from rural New Mexico. I moved to the 'big city', attended The University of New Mexico (UNM) and took a class that had enough seats to fit every student from my high school. As a student, I wandered around aimlessly not knowing where to turn for support. Many times I felt that I was on this journey alone and that UNM wasn't for me. I often complained (to myself) about how flawed the system was and I wished there were people who were willing to help me and knew what I was going through. The truth is, there were many people willing to go above and beyond to support me, I just didn't know where to look.

When selecting this career, I vowed to make myself available for anyone who needed help and to make sure students know where to look for that support. With that said, feel free to reach out! I am happy to mentor any student near or far along their path to graduation. In addition, I am happy to reach out to other campuses to get students connected to resources near them.

Jose Villar, jvillar@unm.edu

How would you encourage students to ask for help who may be afraid to?

Start small. There seems to be a big stigma when it comes to asking for help. We see it everywhere, even in movies! For example, I am sure everyone has watched a scene that shows a family driving around lost and the driver refuses to ask for directions. If you're lost, ask for help. Maybe it's being stubborn or the satisfaction of figuring it out on their own. Maybe it's the fact that it appears that there is no one available to help, or it's the fear that they are asking a 'dumb question'.

Whatever the reason, students are ingrained with the idea that they should know the answer, they are the only one who doesn't know that answer, they need to figure it out on their own, or (the worst myth) students may believe that they will put a burden on someone else. These myths completely hinder success.

Starting small and getting in the habit of asking for help is key. It gets easier to ask for help when you do it more frequently. Ask your little brother to help you do your chores, ask your parents to help you with a class project, or ask your teacher if you can come in early and get help with the homework assignment. Before you know it, you will realize that asking for help is not that bad and it is completely okay to do.

Figuring things out on your own is fine, but it is not the best use of your time. If you can get something done with less headaches and in half the time, why wouldn't you want that? Work smarter, not harder!

What is the role of a high school providing support to students who may be lacking?

I believe that equal opportunity is key. In my experience, it seemed as if all of the support from my high school counselors went to a select few. The same students earned all the scholarships and got into the most schools. Were those students deserving and proactive? Absolutely! I just felt that not as much energy was spent on my dreams and aspirations because I was not in the top 10 of my class and did not have the highest grades. In fact, one of my high school teachers asked me: “when you graduate are you going to apply to the prison or the coal mine?”, the two largest employers in my hometown. I guess they didn't believe that a low income, first-generation, minority wanted to go to college or would be successful. Clearly, they were wrong!

I often think of that conversation and question if other students are viewed this way. Maybe I could have had more support if people in my own high school didn't assume what would be the best path for me…who knows!

Whether a student is fully supported, or whether they are lacking support, high schools and colleges should meet students where they are and help them get to where they want to go. If a school admits someone, it is their responsibility to help them graduate.

What are ways we can bridge the knowledge gap between students in the college application process and parents who are not as familiar with the process?

Inclusion is the best way to bridge the gap between college bound students and their parents/guardians who are not familiar. For the longest time, there has been a culture that encourages parents to 'let go' when someone turns 18 or graduates from high school. There are negative stereotypes of 'helicopter parents', but I believe those stereotypes are counter productive. There is a positive correlation between parental involvement in all aspects of life, so why should going to college be any different? In fact, going to college is one of the biggest life events someone can face, so why is it so important that students go through this event alone or without their biggest fan and source of encouragement and motivation, their parents?

Hosting “How to Pay for College” or “Applying to College” workshops that are catered to families is essential. Events in the evening and on weekends that are designed to educate both parents and students on all of these processes are great starting points. By doing this, parents may be better prepared to help their next child on their path to college and graduation.

There are major milestones that happen in life and parents play a key role in meeting those milestones. Going to college is a huge milestone, so including parent/guardian support in that experience will pay dividends.

How would you recommend a student approach the subject of college if their family has not historically had experience with a college education?

I always knew I wanted to go to college, but I never knew of all the steps on how to get there. My family always said they would support me with whatever I chose, but if I wanted to go to college they would not know how to help me. This is completely normal and okay; we can't expect everyone to know everything.

The best approach will be for students to share their aspirations with their family. If they do not know what you want to do, there is no way they can help you get there!

There were plenty of times when my mom would talk to her friends or coworkers about what my plans were and opportunities came from that. My mom would come home and tell me about scholarships or deadlines that she heard from a friend. Although my mom was not the best source to helping me fill out a college application, she was certainly a great source of information. Had I not expressed my interest of going to college, she may have not had those conversations with her friends and coworkers. So let them know your plans early. Your family will be your strongest advocate and help you find opportunities to make your dreams a reality.

How can students who have always had the expectation of going to college be advocates for those who haven't?

I would suggest that we all lose the 'crabs in a bucket' mentality. Going to college should not be a race to the top. We should not keep someone else from getting to where they want to go. There will always be competition among individuals, but this mentality can be hindering. For example, not sharing a scholarship application with a classmate because you do not want to compete against them for the funds is not very productive.

Students are all in this together, and they should work together to reach their goals. Students should study for the ACT and SAT together. Students should send scholarship opportunites to each other and revise each other's letters of intent. Making an intentional effort to support and share resources is critical. Helping each other out and helping a classmate get to where they want to go is much more rewarding.

What is one thing you would like to see all high schools adopt to help students who don't come from a traditional background apply and transition to college?

High schools should host more college fairs and visits. They should bring in alumni who graduated from college to share their positive experiences in college. And more importantly, they should focus on creating and preparing successful college students as opposed to creating high school graduates. Raise the bar!

In your opinion how can colleges and universities improve their systems to help first generation, or under-supported students, have an easier transition?

I think schools need to embrace and empower students. In addition, they must revisit their role to society and stay true to their mission of educating our future generations. There needs to be a strong commitment to serve all students who are admitted, regardless of how much money that student has or if their parents went to college.

There needs to be a clear commitment in terms of allocating resources, providing clear pathways, celebrating success stories, and changing the perception and stereotypes of first-generation students. One way to do this would be to change the approach of support for first generation and underrepresented populations, from a deficit model to more of a strength model.

How do students become connected with programs like yours?

When I talk to students, I encourage them to follow the steps below. Making a connection is hard to do at first, but once a connection is made life will be much easier!

- Visit the online homepage of the school you are attending
- Find the search box in the right hand corner of the page
- Type “Student Support Services” or “First-Generation” or “Student Affairs”
- Call the first two offices or departments that come up in the search and ask to make an appointment with someone in their office
- Introduce yourself and let them know that you are wanting to get connected to campus and need help finding resources. Share that you are new to this experience and you are a first-generation student
- Follow through on the recommendations that are offered to you

If you cannot find an office on your campus, contact me. I will get you connected with someone on the campus you plan on attending as a starting point.

Any final thoughts for us?

When I was younger and I was asked if I was a first-generation student, I would lie about and said 'no'. Why? Because I did not want anyone to feel sorry for me, I didn't want to feel like I was less prepared, and I was also embarrassed. Many students feel like this - that's normal!

In hindsight, I wish I would have shared my story. There are programs and scholarships that are specifically designed for first-generation students so by my lying about my status, I more than likely missed out on those opportunities. So be proud of your story and do not hesitate to share it.

Today in my practice, I remember my experience and change my language and perception. I share that I was the first in my family to graduate from college and I am proud of it! I make sure that all students know that if I can do it, so can they. I also do not talk about the obstacles they may face being a first-generation student because everyone is going to face obstacles. Instead, I talk about the opportunities and the sense of pride I have knowing that I am the first person to do this thing called college. I was once embarrassed to be considered first-gen but now I am proud of it because I was a trailblazer for my family! Was it hard? Absolutely! Did I know what I was doing? Heck no! Did I get through it? YES!

Colleges must realize that they need to support, embrace, and empower their first-generation population. A starting point is to stop talking about what they need to do to fix or fill holes in order to get first generation students to graduate. They need to start talking about how they can get students motivated to be the first in their family to graduate.

I am not a first-generation student, I am a first to finish student!

Jose Villar

Associate Director of the College Enrichment and Outreach Programs, University of New Mexico

Jose is the Associate Director of the College Enrichment and Outreach Programs (CEOP) at the University of New Mexico. In this role, Jose oversees a number of programs that collaborate to create a seamless support pipeline that promotes P-20 success. This pipeline is designed to create access and increase recruitment, retention, graduation, and development of students in higher education. Jose is certainly grateful for this opportunity because it provides him the opportunity to give back to students who are 'just like him'. Jose is from the small town of Grants, New Mexico and he was the first in his family to go to college. He earned his BBA in Human Resource Management and his MBA in Organizational Leadership from UNM. He has a passion for meetings students where they are and helping them get to where they want to go.