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A program for prospective first-generation students in Nevada is the model for a new statewide initiative.

University of Nevada at Reno

A new initiative to fund efforts to support prospective first-generation college students in Nevada is modeled on an existing program designed to provide sixth-grade students a future path to college.

The Dean’s Future Scholars program was launched by the University of Nevada at Reno more than two decades ago with just 50 middle school students who would presumably become the first in their families to go to college. More than 1,400 students have since participated.

The program was so successful that it caught the attention of State Senator Heidi Seevers Gansert, a first-generation college graduate, ​who advocated for using federal COVID-19 relief dollars to fund a new statewide effort. The effort was part of a recovery bill passed by the Nevada Legislature in May, which allocates $4 million to the University of Nevada at Reno over three years to establish the Nevada First-Gen Network, a group of education institutions and organizations that are currently supporting prospective first-generation college students in the state in the aftermath of the pandemic. The bill now awaits the signature of Governor Steve Sisolak.

“I’m honored to be a Nevada State Senator and doubt I could have accomplished all that I have without my education,” Gansert said in a statement. “I support DFS because I know getting a degree can help students across Nevada improve their lives and the lives of their families.”

The bill directs the state’s COVID-19 federal relief funds toward a variety of services and programs and provides $725,000 annually in microgrants to members of the network to support “pupils who are in grade 6 or higher, are prospective first-generation college students and have been negatively or disparately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.” The funds can go toward mentoring and tutoring services, expanding access to food and technology, or addressing disruptions to learning during the pandemic, according to the bill.

“The idea behind the network is ultimately to connect all of the first-gen practitioners in the state through the issuing of the microgrants, so it’s going to give everybody an excuse to come to the table,” said Mariluz Garcia, executive director of the Dean’s Future Scholars program, who will select grant recipients and ultimately lead the network. The goal is to “open up the lines of communication, kind of breaking down some of those silos that often exist between higher ed and K-12.”

A large-scale investment in first-generation student programming is “practically unheard-of” at the state level, said Sarah Whitley, assistant vice president at the Center for First-Generation Student Success, a national initiative by NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and the Suder Foundation dedicated to sharing best practices to serve first-generation students.

The initiative “looks different than anything we’re really seeing right now,” she said. “I think there’s a lack of understanding sometimes at the state government level of who first-generation students are and the challenges institutions have in supporting students … Nevada could really be a national leader in this space.”

She noted, however, that the initiative organizers will have to be bold to achieve institutional and systemic transformation.

“What they’re doing is wonderful, but what I don’t want it to become is a bunch of little, small boutique programs that are populated all around the state that aren’t working interconnectedly, that aren’t thinking about larger needs,” Whitley said.

Donald Easton-Brooks, dean of the university’s College of Education and Human Development, called the level of state funding “incredibly humbling” and said it reflects lawmakers’ belief in the “importance” of the Dean’s Future Scholars program to the surrounding community in northern Nevada.

“This program has had a profound effect on so many lives, both with students and their families,” he said in a press release. “Funding like this just further validates their success, the program’s stability, and impact on Nevada’s future.”

Students are selected to participate in the program based on the recommendations of school counselors, teachers and principals. Most of the students come from low-income families and qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches in the local Washoe County School District. They participate in summer programs at the university designed to foster a sense of belonging on campus and build academic skills from sixth grade through 12th grade. They meet twice a month with college student mentors—many of whom went through the program themselves—work in paid internships and, in their final year in the program, their summer program consists of preparation for college courses. The program also distributes between $40,000 to $50,000 in scholarship money among the students each year.

Over the past five years, 97 percent of students in the program have graduated from high school, compared to 75 percent of students districtwide who qualify for free or discounted lunches. Since 2006, 66 percent of students have immediately enrolled in college, with the majority attending the University of Nevada at Reno or Truckee Meadows Community College. The program currently only tracks the academic outcomes of students who attended the University of Nevada at Reno, but among those students, the college graduation rate is 57 percent. Nationally, 26 percent of first-generation students graduate with a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center analysis of Federal Reserve Board data.

Sammy Rosales wasn’t thinking about college when he was selected to participate in the program in 2006, but that changed by the time he completed it in 2012. As an undocumented student raised by a single mother with a sixth-grade education, he worried that going to college would be complicated and financially unfeasible.

A major challenge faced by many first-generation students is just “not knowing what to do,” he said. “Our parents didn’t go through the process of applying for school. They didn’t go through the process of applying for FAFSA.”

Rosales was ultimately approved for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which protects people who were brought to the United States without documentation as children and allows them to work legally or attend college without risk of deportation. He applied to the University of Nevada at Reno with guidance from his mentor in the future scholars program. He was initially denied admission, but he raised his GPA and appealed the admissions process with help from the director of the program at the time, who also bought Rosales his first set of textbooks. Rosales went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the university and is now a guidance counselor at Procter R. Hug High School. He partly credits the future scholars program for his career decision to mentor students like himself—and the degrees that got him there.

He tells students, “Hey, I am a brown, Latino male who grew up in the ghetto, grew up in a poor household,” he said. “I understand where you’re coming from, and I’m telling you, you can make it.”

Garcia, the director of the scholars program, chose not to replicate the Dean’s Future Scholars program across the state with the new funding but to expand on the work of the program by supporting institutions already serving prospective first-generation students in a similar age range. She said she did this to account for nuances in different regions of the state.

“I want to tell the first-gen story for the state of Nevada,” she said. “I’ll be connecting with folks in the rural [areas], folks in tribal lands, any institution, organization or program that works with first-gen students. I’m going to see who’s doing what, what they’re experiencing, what their barriers are, and I’m going to pull it together into one story. I don’t think anyone has done that for this particular population for the state of Nevada.”

She noted that high school graduates who don’t go to college are often attracted to tourism or service-industry jobs in Las Vegas, and that high school graduates in smaller towns tend to get jobs in industries such as mining that don’t require a college degree.

Among students who graduated high school in Nevada in 2019, fewer than half immediately enrolled in college, according to the state Department of Education.

“Historically, students in the state of Nevada have been able to land jobs that paid well” even without a college degree, Garcia said. However, during economic downturns, “those are often the first positions to get cut,” as shown by the pandemic.

Because first-generation students were disproportionally affected by the pandemic nationwide, Whitley, of the Center for First-Generation Student Success, said it’s in the best interest of colleges to try to enroll and retain these students as enrollment declines caused by the pandemic continue. She expects university leaders and policy makers to follow the university’s lead and put more resources into supporting these students.

“Our communities are better for it, but it’s also a way to support the bottom line of the institution,” she said.

Garcia said she hopes the Nevada First-Gen Network will ultimately create a community of people working with this population across the state who can connect through webinars, Zoom check-ins and conferences to share best practices.

“Everything is based on relationships,” she said. “We want to establish relationships with the people doing the work.”

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