Saint Mary’s Celebrates First-Gen Students

Student Alondra MendozaOn Friday, Nov. 8, Saint Mary’s first-generation college students, faculty, and staff filled the Intercultural Center to celebrate the third annual National First-Generation Day, which was established to honor the anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA).

The HEA emerged out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, with the goal to help level a playing field that had been weighed against people from minority and low-income backgrounds. In addition to creating federal grants and loan programs to help students finance their education, the legislation made key investments in institutions of higher education. HEA ushered in a set of programs designed to provide academic tutoring, personal counseling, mentoring, financial guidance, and other support necessary for access, retention, and completion for low-income, high-potential, first-generation college students.

Saint Mary’s High Potential/First-Gen program has been extremely successful in scaffolding first-generation college students through their higher education journey; and it remains deeply engaged and committed to the students’ success during their four years at the College.

“We’re always excited to join colleges and universities across the country to celebrate the annual National First-Generation Day,” said Jenee Palmer, director of the High Potential program and TRIO Student Support Services at Saint Mary’s. “The event was held to highlight and celebrate the first-gen stories, experiences, and outcomes on our campus, and to engage in dialogue around first-gen efforts. Our event was very student-centered, where students took the lead to plan, coordinate, and provide a welcoming space for first gen-students, staff, faculty, and allies to share stories, share food, and to be in community with one another.”

The event took a holistic approach by engaging attendees in multiple activities. One of the popular activities included writing a letter to someone who has been important in their educational journey. There was a Wash Your Worries Away station where attendees wrote about their concerns and then placed the dissolvable paper into water to “wash away” their cares.

Student Anahi Torres Fourth-year student Jazzy Sakaniwa ’20 was instrumental in leading the planning for the National First-Generation Day at the College. “I am a first-gen, low-income student, and I’ve been in the HP Program since the very beginning of my four years here,” said Sakaniwa. “This year, we decided to partner with the Intercultural Center and its ‘Feel Good Friday.’ We had fun activities, including one of my favorites, where people who came in would write down words of advice on pieces of paper. At the end, we puzzled the pieces of paper together. It was a great way to build community with one another.”

Sakaniwa also spoke about her experience as an HP first-gen student. “In high school, I didn't think I was going to go to college. My family encouraged me, and it’s because of them that I’m here,” said Sakaniwa. “The HP Program for me has been my home for four years, and it is seeing me through to graduation. I really encourage high-potential, first-gen students to interact with the program, come to our events, and to work with the HP coaches.”

Elizabeth Giron-Medina ’20 is also an HP first-gen student and expressed her excitement about the event’s great turnout. “It’s the first time that I have ever seen such a great turnout, and I’m proud that we have an actual day to celebrate here on campus. It shows me that the community is growing and that first-gen students have a voice on campus. I find that really thrilling and exciting,” said Giron-Medina. She added, “I was wearing my high-potential sweater, and some people were asking about the HP Program and what we do. After I explained it, they were actually intrigued. I’m happy that I could use my voice to speak highly of the program.”

Other first-gen students were open about their experiences as the first in their family to attend college. “Being a first-generation college student has really helped build my independence and perseverance. Throughout my journey here at SMC I have definitely struggled on how to navigate the college life. However, with the help of the High Potential Program, I have been given much guidance, resources, and most importantly reassurance that has allowed me to believe I am capable of achieving my most desired dreams in life, no matter who I am or where I come from,” said Alondra Mendoza ’21. 

Student Synclaire LeeSynclaire Lee ’22 likewise shared her experience. “Being a first-generation college student means taking risks and constantly having to keep moving forward during difficult times. It can be hard to figure out where to fit in or how to navigate college while not having parents who can relate to my situation,” said Lee. “The High Potential Program has helped me build on my strengths and successes as a first-generation college student. HP values the voices, experiences, knowledge, and perseverance that first-generation students bring to this College, and I am reminded every day that I belong here and that I am capable of succeeding, even when I feel like giving up.” 

The National First-Gen Day celebration was a successful culmination of student-led creativity and commitment. HP students rolled up their sleeves and delivered an event that resulted in record attendance from the Saint Mary’s community. “I think it’s really powerful when students recognize the many skills that they’ve been able to bring from what they’ve learned at Saint Mary’s and from their previous experiences,” said Palmer. “I love seeing the ‘lightbulb’ moment when they realize that they are incredibly resourceful, resilient, and are able to take their skills and transfer them in meaningful ways. I see it so many times, especially with our first-year, first-gen students. When they recognize their potential and recognize that they can harness that power, it’s a pretty awesome thing to see.”