Linfield University Wins Regional Award for Program Focused on First Generation Students
“I wanted to at least go to college thinking I knew a few things about it, but in reality I really didn’t know anything about college life,” recalls Karina Alcantara Guerrero, third year student at Linfield University. .
Alcantara Guerrero attended a high school in Portland which she said was quite racially diverse. So, she said, signing up for Linfield – which is about 64% white – was a little shocking. On top of that, being the first person in her family to go to college meant she wasn’t familiar with campus culture.
She said she couldn’t imagine what entering McMinnville Private University would have been without the First Scholars Program, a program focused on supporting the success of first-generation students.
“It really helped me not to be afraid to ask questions because that was a fear I had as a first generation student,” she said.
First Scholars matches incoming first generation students with student and employee mentors. It also awards scholarships to students based on their financial need throughout their stay at the university. Linfield defines first-generation students as students whose parents have not completed a four-year college degree.
Alcantara Guerrero was part of the first cohort of the program, which is now in its third year of university. In her third year at Linfield, Alcantara Guerrero is the program’s student coordinator and mentor herself.
Without being in the program in her freshman year, she said, her experience at Linfield would likely have been very different.
“I really feel like it would have been a lot more difficult,” said Alcantara Guerrero.
First generation students at Linfield make up 34% of the total campus population. For freshmen this fall, that percentage is even higher – 42%.
In addition to scholarship funding and first-generation student mentorship, First Scholars also provides students with activities and meetups throughout the year. And new students attend a specialized orientation one week before the start of the school year.
First generation students are automatically enrolled in the program prior to their first year, but they can opt out if they wish.
The program received a Beacon Award earlier this month – an annual award from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, or NWCCU, the region’s leading accrediting body for post-secondary institutions. Linfield was one of three recipients, winning in the category of institutions with less than 2,000 students.
NWCCU President Sonny Ramaswarmy said the Beacon Award recognizes institutional achievements related to student success. Specifically, there must be hard evidence of student success, and whatever the program or plan, it should be possible for other institutions to follow suit.
“We want our institutions to be able to replicate the wonderful work that Linfield has done,” Ramaswarmy told OPB. “It’s really a multi-pronged approach to be able to ensure that students are successful. “
The retention rate for first-generation Linfield students is currently around 80%, on par with students whose family members have completed college.
Linfield does not have a retention rate available for first generation students prior to the program, but he does indicate that over the past five years, first generation students have consistently graduated at a rate of around 54%. . This compares to a graduation rate of 61% for all students, over the same period.
These numbers are similar to what the Oregon higher education system shows. According to data from the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, the state college completion rate for non-first generation students was 62%. For first generation students, the rate was 51%.
Linfield administrators expect the graduation rate of first-generation students to increase dramatically once members of the initial First Scholars program cohort begin to graduate in 2023.
Linfield’s Associate Vice President of Student Success and Retention, Gerardo Ochoa, is one of the founders and leaders of the program. He was a first generation college graduate himself.
“In a lot of places in higher education they weren’t designed for people of color, for first generation students; they were not designed for women. So many times, as administrators, we really have to deconstruct the way higher education is going for people who have been intentionally left out, ”Ochoa said. “We need to rethink how education is going to play out for the new student demographics. “
Ochoa said the pandemic interrupted the pilot year of the program – which began in fall 2019 – prompting many limited meetings in person or online.
Still, the program allowed students to network and form friendships, which Ochoa says is crucial in helping new first-generation students avoid “cultural mismatch,” essentially culture shock.
Ochoa said first generation students often thrive in an interdependent culture, “where you collaborate with family and friends, elementary teachers – you do things as a team and together.”
However, he said, many colleges and universities operate in an independent culture, where students are expected to figure things out for themselves.
“I really want us as an institution to strive to have a university ready for students rather than having students ready for college,” Ochoa said.
Linfield student Alcantara Guerrero said she definitely felt this cultural mismatch in her freshman year, but the First Scholars program helped alleviate it.
“In the first generation program, there were a lot of [students of color], and it really helped me because we were able to create a support system for each other, and that’s where I met a lot of my close friends, ”she said.
Alcantara Guerrero said she wanted other colleges and universities to consider similar programs, “because it makes a difference.”
This is something Linfield president Miles Davis also had in mind, being a first-generation student himself.
Davis said he hopes the Beacon Award-winning First Scholars program will encourage other institutions to take steps to support first-generation students, beyond just recruiting and registering.
“What do you want to do to meet these students where they are?” That’s what Linfield does, ”Davis said. “We’re not saying, ‘Okay, you’re just going to come to our institution, you’re going to comply with all the things we’ve always done,’ because I can guarantee you that they won’t keep these students.”
Davis says it’s crucial that new first-generation students connect with other students, staff, and faculty who are also first-generation.
“You need to make sure that you have people in your facility who can speak to the lived experiences of the people you bring,” he said.