Want First-Generation Latinx College Students to Succeed? Get the Parents Involved!

Last month, Sonoma State University hosted its second Bilingual First Generation Orientation geared towards parents whose children were the first to attend a four-year university. A little under 50 percent of first-time freshmen are first-generation college students, and a majority of these first-generation students are Latinx. Overall, 29 percent of the enrollment is Latinx, so a bilingual orientation is necessary for many of the parents to understand what happens as their young adult embarks on the college journey. My role at the orientation was simple but also great—I was the parent host. After the parents checked in, they were welcomed by the university's director of enrollment management, Gustavo Flores. He thanked them for the work they put in to ensure their children would be accepted to a university, knowing many were immigrants who did not have the opportunity to study or pursue an education in the United States. Flores also shared that he too was first-generation, as is most of his staff in the outreach and recruitment office. His welcome set the day and the attitude, one where parents were encouraged to ask questions and learn about the next steps for their children.

Sharing Stories and Encouragement

During the first day, parents heard from various speakers, a majority of whom were bilingual and first-generation college graduates. Speakers touched on academics, what it takes to earn an undergraduate degree, and the breakdown of general education classes, electives and major classes. Parents also learned about financial aid and were encouraged to have their students accept work-study jobs since it offers opportunities to work on campus and more flexibility as their schooling is prioritized. Parents then had lunch at the campus cafeteria, where their student will have most of their meals as freshmen. They were introduced to the campus police and health center representatives, as well as the tutoring, learning center and disability services. It was important for parents to know that these services were on campus, since [pullquote position="left"]most of them didn’t even know they existed. The second day of orientation was shorter but offered the parents an opportunity to get to know campus resources, like the library and the librarians who served them coffee and donuts. The parents also had an opportunity to chat with me. I was fortunate to give a workshop on first-generation college families. I spoke on the importance of support as their student will change and gain a new form of independence not often well received at home, especially for young Latinas. I also shared my own story of being the first to go to college and what it meant for my family, since I was both the eldest and a woman. One key thing I left them with was that they needed to visit their student. Not to visit just on “family visit weekend” or “sibling weekend,” but other occasions. Additionally, I told them that while the student enrollment might be at 29 percent for the Latinx demographic, they may go through their entire college education without ever taking a class with a Latinx faculty. Because of that, they should encourage their student to take an ethnic studies course since it might be the first time in their entire schooling they take a course where they are at the center and their experience(s) is validated and shared positively. The last workshops/sessions focused on the expectations for on-campus living, as well as how to let go of their student and to trust the educational process. At the end of the orientation, parents were both excited and relieved.

Building a Better Support Network

One of the parents realized the value of coming to orientation because she now knew what her daughter would go through. But the same parent also felt bad that she had questioned her daughter for wanting to go to a university so far from home and for giving her guilt about taking time off from work to come to this orientation. Despite that, this mother found the Bilingual First Generation Orientation to be worth the effort when she realized how she could better support her daughter. I also shared with parents the names, emails and phone numbers of faculty and staff that have worked with undocumented students for several years (some of our Latino students are undocumented). I shared this information because these professionals know what it takes to be able to successfully navigate a four-year university, and they know the challenges these marginalized students face. I am thankful that I’m able to share my own experiences, and I look forward to next year’s Bilingual First Generation Orientation and hope that the number of parents in attendance doubles.
Mariana G. Martinez, PhD, is the eldest of three and the first in her family to earn a high school diploma and a higher education. Mariana has been an advocate in the field of education for almost two decades. Her love and passion in education began as a senior in high school interning at a local elementary school. She was raised by immigrant parents who encouraged her to get an education so one ...

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