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After her graduation ceremony, the young adult daughter closes her eyes as she embraces her unrecognizable mother.

Colleges and universities can learn from the lived experiences of first-generation Mexican American college graduates to support student success.

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As higher education grows increasingly diverse, equity gaps in completion and degree attainment between different ethnic and racial groups, particularly among Hispanic learners, still exist.

During the 2022–23 academic year, completion among all Hispanic students fell 1 percent, the first time since 2015–16, and first-time completion fell 1.9 percent among Hispanic students, according to an April report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

First-generation students also face unique family dynamics that motivate students’ learnings but can also pull students away from the residential college experience.

Cynthia D. Trejo, director of Project Outreach Familia at the University of Arizona, explored how students prepared for and persisted in college—and what practitioners can learn from their experiences in a new report.

Her study, “Reframing College: Mexican American Students, Higher Education, and Family Restorative Justice,” looks at how early exposure to college experiences and cultural engagement could benefit first-generation Mexican American college students.

Getting a head start: Several factors while in junior high benefited students’ interest in attending higher education and their likelihood of success including:


The 10 study participants attended the same predominately Latino junior high school located along the southern border in Arizona. At the time of the study, three participants were career professionals and seven were enrolled in a postsecondary program, either undergraduate or graduate degree programs. All identified as first-generation college-going Mexican Americans and interviewed with the researcher over Zoom.

  • Early college program access. Participants were exposed to gifted and after school/summer school resources that allowed them to earn college credit while in junior high and high school at low or no-cost. Students could engage in college-level math during afterschool and summer school math clubs, tutoring, and dual enrollment courses, which also added to their college preparation. Staff supported students in administrative processes that may have hindered their participation in early college experiences, such as scholarships and transportation.
  • Family engagement. Staff members at the junior high school actively engaged with students’ families. Staff members spoke Spanish, shared their ethnic backgrounds and embraced students’ identities as Mexican American, which helped bridge experiences for students. This, in turn, helped make family members partners in the students’ educational experiences.
  • Family restorative justice. Students shared in testimonies that their persistence is their way of honoring parental and ancestral sacrifice, holding great respect for the sacrifices others have made for them to pursue higher education. “This concept of restoring what is broken, unjust, or what was sacrificed tapped into the individual’s realization that the degree not only represented their work and sacrifices but also honored that of their families,” Trejo wrote in the report. A majority of students were migrant students with at least one parent working in agriculture, which also impacted their perspectives of hard work and sacrifice.

Finding their why. Half of participants shared they faced challenges early in their college careers that made them want to leave higher education, tied to life circumstances including parental illnesses, death of close family members, homesickness, encounters with microaggression and culture shock.

Participants sought mental health support but also looked to their own motivations and reframed their college experiences to better serve them.

  • Validating ethnic identity and belonging. A majority of participants joined cultural groups that focused on Latinx experiences, providing resources and a community to support their authentic selves. This helped combat culture shock and affirm their place at the institution.
  • Remembering the significance of a degree. Participants also reflected on the power of a degree and the opportunities it would create for them and for their capacity to give back to others. One participant gave the example of being a nurse versus a nurse practitioner and how, with additional education, his scope of practice could increase and help more people.
  • Strengthening community. Students also saw themselves as the first to achieve, not the only one to achieve, which motivated them to complete for the sake of future generations including their younger siblings, community members or family.

So what? Based on the study’s findings, Trejo encourages practitioners to:

  • Expand opportunities for Hispanic and Latinx to engage in pre-college programming. Different pre-college paths—including partnerships between K-12 and higher education institutions, college mathematics in middle and high school, and networking and mentorship opportunities—can benefit first-generation Mexican American student success.
  • Implement asset-based pedagogies. While in college, students were not always hindered by academics but by other life circumstances. Finding ways to acknowledge the assets first-generation and Hispanic students bring to their college experiences can benefit their persistence and overall attainment.
  • Engage family members. Parents and other family members can champion college-going culture and support students throughout their time in higher education.

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