Chapman University senior Olivia Mello trains mentors who will soon work with first generation community teens, making them the first from their families to go to college.
“I’m sure you all serve informally as mentors in your everyday life,” the piano performance major says to the mentors. “It’s important to recognize these qualities you see in those relationships and to recognize how that can translate to these young students.”
There is a good reason why Mello wants to see success in first generation students: She is a first generation student herself.
In fact, nearly 20% of Chapman’s student body is first generation, according to Quaylan Allen, director of first generation programs and associate professor in the Attallah College of Educational Studies.
Seeing some of those students’ struggles led Mello to create Chapman’s First Generation Mentorship Program last year. Part of her role includes training mentors for those young people. She also oversees scholarship and resume workshops and how to navigate through entrance requirements.
“I wanted it to be something where [first generation students] could have access not only to mentors and people who empower them, but also the tools to apply to college successfully,” said Mello.
All first generation programs, including Mello’s, are overseen by Allen.
“A lot of our work is spent on trying to help students transition to university, helping them learn the language and culture of the university, and supporting them academically, socially and professionally as they navigate through the uni over the next four years,” Allen said.
A high priority, Allen said, is for these students to have mentors.
“It is more impactful when it comes from other first gen students who have already been down that road,” said Allen. “Peer-to-peer mentoring is just as important as faculty-to-student mentoring just because of the experience students bring to the table and the wealth of knowledge they have as students.”
The First Generation Mentorship Program pairs 8th grade and high school students in the Orange area with a Chapman student who helps guide them through the college application process.
“The goal is to obviously help create a pipeline program [for] first generation junior high and high school students who might consider coming to not just college but Chapman in particular,” said Allen.
Clarissa Cordova, the president of the First Generation Ambassadors Club, pairs first generation underclassmen with an upperclass mentor. Usually, Cordova said, mentors help their mentees grow academically and socially.
One does not have to be a first generation student to become a mentor; they must only be passionate about helping students and willing to support their mentee.
“We look for mentors that are juniors or seniors,” Cordova said. “We’re very welcoming to everybody.”
Despite programs and other support from Chapman, being a first generation student can be difficult at times, and comes with a handful of challenges that other students may not understand.
“As a first gen student there are a lot of things you can’t learn from a textbook, and you just have to learn it on your own,” said Gabe Braden, a sophomore film production major.
Braden said that Chapman made the transition relatively easy, but there were little things that took some getting used to.
“I thought everybody was first gen. I just assumed that everyone’s parents didn’t go to college,” Braden said. “The biggest struggles were things like Greek life, class schedules, and financial stuff, just because I had no resources to know about that.”
Braden said he struggled in ways that some of his more privileged peers could not understand.
“Being in Dodge is tough because one of the biggest issues is money,” said Braden. “I worked multiple jobs. When I complete a film they expect my parents to pay, but I’m going to be the one paying.”
Braden was also involved in one of Chapman’s first generation programs: He was a first generation program leader for incoming freshmen this year and said that the experience was incredibly rewarding.
“It’s an introduction for the first gen kids before [orientation week] starts,” said Braden. “We got to show them how being a student works, because a lot of kids don’t understand how college works yet.”
In order to be a successful first generation student, Mello stressed the importance of seeking out opportunities for jobs, scholarships, and internships. She even displayed her excel spreadsheet of scholarships and fellowships that she applied to.
“It’s all about being tactful and very precise with your time,” said Mello. “Constantly look for opportunities, because nobody is going to hold your hand and serve it to you on a nice little plate. Build your network from day one because that’s where you’re going to get the things you need to be successful.”
Mello, Braden, and Allen offered words of advice and encouragement to other first generation students.
“It’s really easy to adopt the impostor syndrome while you’re here,” said Mello. “Perseverance is key. A lot of first gens have already faced adversity, so they are willing to work twice as hard as the person next to them.”
Braden also touched on the unnecessary shame that some first gen students feel.
“Some people are embarrassed and some people don’t really know how to approach it, but we really push that being first gen is something that you should be proud of; you should wear it with pride,” said Braden.
Many first generation students, mentors, and program leaders alike encouraged the celebration of the first generation identity.
“It is a source of strength to be the first in your family to go to college,” said Allen.