When it comes to adjusting to college life, students have to manage their own time, balance classes and meet lots of new people.
Oftentimes, students who come from marginalized backgrounds have larger obstacles to overcome during their first year of college — especially first-generation students and students of color. Ensuring that those students can navigate college and stay enrolled depends a lot on how comfortable they feel academically, particularly early on.
“We try to tell them: ‘A lot of students don’t do well in their first semester.’ It’s a huge transition – they’re getting used to the new way of working and learning and interacting with professors,” says Brittany Alvarez, vice president of college success at the Latino Education Advancement Foundation, an organization that aims to improve outcomes for Latinx students in East San Jose, Calif.
This year, the foundation provided scholarships to 280 first-generation, low-income students from the area along with 150 parents or guardians of the scholars. Of the students that the organization supports, 85% are enrolled in college full-time. The foundation has also given the students more than $15,000 in funds for housing, food, and transportation.
The foundation starts working with students during their senior year of high school, and stays in touch with them once they are accepted into college — checking to ensure they enroll in classes, offering the support of peer mentors, and coaching their parents on the financial aid process and career readiness.
Much of the support is centered on a student’s first two years of college, Alvarez said. A student who has a successful first semester is more likely to stay enrolled.
The peer-mentorship model gives the students a chance to ask questions right away when they have them — and connects them to someone who “truly cares about them,” said Estuardo Sanchez, a senior at California State University, East Bay, who is one of the program’s peer mentors.
For freshmen, the questions tend to be centered around financial aid and signing up for the right classes. But beyond that, the connection with a mentor helps the students feel like they belong on campus.
“They feel like they have someone like ‘Hey, I can talk to this person,’” Sanchez said.