First-generation students (from left) second-year Kyle Wickham and first-years Salma Elkhaoudi and Diego Luevano. Photo by Joel Wintermantle

College enhances support for first-generation students

Though Diego Luevano’s parents did not go to college, he dreamed that he would. Born in California but raised in Mexico, Luevano became passionate about physics in high school. “I set my mind on becoming a physicist,” he says. “I knew I had to make it to college somehow.”

But higher education was never a guarantee. “My parents said, ‘Shoot for the stars,’” the first-year College student recalls, “‘but be conscious that it’s going to be a hard road.’ They knew they could only help me with so much.” 

A high school teacher saw Luevano’s potential and encouraged him. He applied to the University of Chicago and was offered a full-tuition scholarship.

First-year Isa Alvarez talks about being a first-generation College student. Video Link: Video by UChicago Creative

Now he’s among a growing number of first-generation students in the College. UChicago’s Class of 2019 represents a roughly 40 percent increase in the number of students who are the first in their families to pursue higher education—an all-time high. The University is doing more than ever to support those students’ success throughout their time in the College.

Representing diverse racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds, they articulate a common sentiment: “It was never if I would go to college, but where.”

The change indicates the effectiveness of the No Barriers program, which the University launched in 2014 to enhance access, affordability, and career development for students of all backgrounds.

No Barriers has helped first-generation students in many ways, including by eliminating student loan requirements from undergraduate, need-based financial aid packages, and by simplifying the financial aid application process. UChicago also is a leader in the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, an unprecedented collaboration by more than 80 colleges and universities to improve the college admission process and increase participation by low-income students.

Through enhancements to the Odyssey Scholarships, students from families with limited incomes also have access to additional internship or research opportunities and training geared toward career and leadership development. The support of donors has been vital to the success of these programs.

“The whole concept of No Barriers is not just getting students in the door,” says Jay Ellison, dean of students in the College. “We need to get them to graduation and to their post-graduate plans.”

First generation students pictured at Center for College Student Access in Harper Library. Photo by Joel Wintermantle

New support for first-generation students

Ellison has overseen the creation of the Center for College Student Success, a new office in Harper Memorial Library offering advising in academics, financial literacy, and the College student experience.

While the office serves all students, its six full-time advisors and its programming will be tailored to those who are first-generation, low-income, or from other underresourced backgrounds.

“One of the things we know about students is that each comes with different kinds of resources, options, and opportunities,” Ellison says. “Some first-generation college students don’t have the same connections, the same ability to call home and say, ‘What class should I take?’ or ‘Where should I apply to graduate school?’ because it’s a different language for the family.”

Navigating tasks such as applying for financial aid, buying books, and choosing classes was harrowing at times for second-year Kyle Wickham, also a first-generation student. “All of it was brand new,” he says.

But his greatest fear was the feeling that he wouldn’t measure up academically. “I was scared that I would be one of the dumbest people here,” Wickham says, “that I wasn’t trained properly.”

That concern is not unusual, says Devon Moore, director of the center, but it fades as students discover they can succeed. “These students may have been limited by their environment or certain circumstances, but they are all incredibly bright and gifted and have the ability to thrive here.”

Isa Alvarez, right, moves in to Snell-Hitchcock Hall on the UChicago campus. Photo by Joel Wintermantle

Building academic skills and social support

To help them do so, Moore oversees the center’s flagship effort—the Chicago Academic Achievement Program—a seven-week residential summer program, which provides early exposure to scholarly and social life at the University for incoming first-year students, many of whom are from low-income families or are the first in their families to attend college.

Students take four University-level, non-credit courses in the humanities, math, science, and writing—a sort of trial run for the Core curriculum. Isa Alvarez says participation in the program this summer helped tremendously in preparing for her first year at UChicago.

Her writing skills improved dramatically, says Alvarez, a first-generation student. But the experience also helped her and others build social support to help see them through their first year and beyond.

“The focus of the program was not just on schoolwork but on making friends,” Alvarez says. “There were so many people I could go to for help when I was stressed or needed advice.”

Fellow participant Salma Elkhaoudi agrees the community-building aspect was invaluable. “The other students were amazing, some of the best people I’ve ever met,” Elkhaoudi says. “Living with them for seven weeks brought us closer than we could have imagined.”

Mentorship and career development are other key aspects of No Barriers’ support for first-generation students. Edgar Gonzalez, AB’14, a first-generation alumnus, is now part of the Education, Equity, and Access Team in the College, specifically charged with recruitment and outreach to underrepresented students.

“There are so many different pieces of the puzzle, so many things students don’t know,” Gonzalez says. “I am able to help them based on my own experience.”

The guidance that Wickham received boosted his confidence and advanced his career goals. He recently completed a Metcalf internship at the University of Chicago Medical Center, which reinforced his desire to pursue a career in medicine. “Now I know what I want to do with my life,” he says.

Originally published on on October 13, 2015.