Occidental’s new First-Gen Coalition seeks to institutionalize support for first-generation college students

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The Johnson Student Center on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017.

The First-Generation Student Coalition, also known as the First-Gen Coalition, was created May 2020 to address the need for institutionalized support for first-generation college students at Occidental, according to Jazmin Calderon-Arreola (senior), president of the First Gen Club and student liaison for the First-Gen Coalition. The coalition centering first-generation students is collaborating with the Intercultural Community Center (ICC), the Dean of Students office and Calderon-Arreola. According to Erik Quezada ’09, director of the Neighborhood Partnership Program and chair of the coalition, the group’s goals are to organize programming and increase the visibility of first-generation students on campus.

Quezada said he began working on the coalition last spring. As an Occidental alumni and first-generation student himself, Quezada said he struggled in his first year with feeling like he did not belong at the college — a feeling he sees in first-generation students today.

“Since we’ve existed since May, we’ve been hearing a general common theme that Oxy isn’t really for them, or that they don’t belong,” Quezada said. “I just remember coming in with my 10-pound Dell laptop that was hand-me-down, and I was like, ‘I got a laptop. Yeah!’ and I was so excited. But then coming to Oxy and seeing everybody had Macs and MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs and feeling like, ‘Wow, I must have missed the memo.’ Just even within the first week of Oxy, realizing like, ‘This is gonna be a weird experience.’” 

Quezada said he has been reflecting on his time at Occidental to determine what kinds of resources or help first-generation students might need. He also noted that being remote provides an additional challenge for first-generation students who may not have access to a quality home workspace.

Chris Arguedas, ICC director, is a part of the coalition and has been working to provide the First-Gen Coalition and first-generation students on campus with support.

“I think first-gen students need the same thing that we all need. They need clarity. They need support, and the only difference is, there may not have been anybody in their family to take care of things for them,” Arguedas said.

Arguedas said the initiative was a call to action for different groups, such as the Office of Admission and different academic departments. He hopes that through the coalition, first-generation students can identify what kind of support and resources they need. 

“We want to make a commitment to make sure that this is something that continues at Oxy so that the First Gen Club has the support they need to do the work that’s important to them at the institutional level,” Arguedas said. 

Cindy Dong (junior) is currently the First Gen Club’s social media manager and has been working with other first-generation students to grow the club. 

According to Dong, she was a part of the club her first year but the club disappeared following the graduation of the leading seniors. Dong rejoined after the club restarted this academic year.

“We’ve had a few meetings so far and it’s gone really well but we are expecting to see a larger amount of students show up. Obviously, it’s hard because we’re all online this year,” Dong said.

Dong said the club’s social media is promoting workshops held by the First-Gen Coalition. Most recently, they hosted a “Loans, Scholarships and Oxy Financial Aid Resources” workshop in collaboration with Oxy Financial Literacy Club and the Student Leadership, Involvement and Community Engagement (SLICE) office.

Dong said it was important to provide first-generation students with resources because they do not have the background support of parents or family who have gone through the college experience.

“It’s harder to navigate [college] as a first-gen student, because we’re not able to go to our parents and just ask them, ‘How can we do all of this?’ because they haven’t been through them through that themselves,” Dong said. “I think it’s really important to have a space for first-gen students to connect and learn about these possibilities. We’ve gotten messages like, ‘How do you look for scholarships when you’re not like a rising first-year anymore?’ Like, ‘How do you do FAFSA?’ It’s definitely like a community group, where we connect with one another. It just gives us kind of a safe space.”

Calderon-Arreola said both the club and the First-Gen Coalition are trying to build momentum, but it has been difficult to do online.

“We haven’t had a lot of attendance and I think mainly because it’s pretty hard to find a good time for people to meet with everyone being in different time zones and having probably more responsibilities in their home,” Calderon-Arreola said.

Arguedas said in previous years support for first-generation students on campus has been scattered, but the coalition has forced them to put their heads together.

“Folks were sort of doing different types of initiatives for first-gen students, but it wasn’t really in unison,” Arguedas said. “There wasn’t really a shared direction.”

Quezada said one of the coalition’s main priorities is making sure students know what the coalition is and how they can help them.

“We’ve basically just been tackling projects as they come. Our first big project was, we need to reach out to all the first years. We need to let them know that we exist,” Quezada said. “I kind of see this as an effort to permanently institutionalize first-gen support.”

The First-Gen Coalition sent out physical letters to all students at Occidental that self-identify as first-generation students, according to Quezada. Roughly 16 percent of students in the Class of 2024 identify as first-generation. 

Calderon-Arreola said she hopes more students can become directly involved with the coalition in the future.

“The coalition is more departmental and staff and faculty are the ones that are in the coalition,” Calderon-Arreola said. “Hopefully we can get more students integrated into it, because as of now I’m the only student there.”

Quezada said he encourages students who are interested in the First-Gen Coalition to reach out via email at firstgeneration@oxy.edu.