UC Riverside ranks No. 2 among UC schools for first-generation freshmen – Press Enterprise

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When Hemet resident Ashley Armenta-Partida left Mexico for the U.S. at age 11, she didn’t expect to go to college.

Her father, a construction worker, dropped out of elementary school. Her mother has a high school-level education. As for Ashley, she was more worried about learning English than getting a degree.

Now, almost a decade later, Armenta-Partida, 18, is ready to start her freshman year at UC Riverside in fall.

“I feel excited to be the first person to set the example for my siblings,” she said at a Monday, July 8, orientation session.

Of all the freshman who enrolled at UCR in fall 2018, nearly 60 percent are trying to become the first in their family to complete a four-year degree. Sandra Baltazar Martinez, a UCR spokeswoman, said this number is the second highest in the UC system — putting UCR behind UC Merced and above the national average of 36 percent.


Assistant Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Thomas Dickson believes his team’s efforts — such as outreach and academic support — have contributed to the university’s appeal for such students.

“UCR attracts students, faculty and staff who are all passionate about helping students with understanding the complexity that is college,” he said.

To illustrate the need for first-generation student support programs, he likened the college experience to a long hike.

Students with parents who went to college already know the trail to follow, he said. But for those whose parents never went to college in the United States, he said, the journey is much more obscure.

“You’re going to go up and down the hill, you’re going to go around barriers and you’re going to repeat the path many times over — not knowing that there is a faster, easier, way to do it,” he said.

What “first-generation” means to his team differs from the UC system’s definition.

Dickson considers all students whose parents did not get a four-year degree in the United States to be first-generation college students. But to the UC system and UCR, whose 56% rate comes from admissions data, first-generation students are the first in their family to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher in any country.

For example, a student whose parents graduated from college in the Philippines or in Mexico would be considered first-generation to Dickson’s office, but not to UC admissions officials.

Though this difference can lead to confusion, he said, UCR support programs use the broader definition to help the most amount of people.

Dickson leads UCR’s H1ghlander First-Generation Project, a program that focuses on demystifying the path for students whose parents are as new to college as they are. Students who participate in the project receive support, mentoring, research opportunities and other help, all of which he said are useful for keeping the students in school.

Dickson, himself a first-generation student, has also spearheaded an effort to increase such representation at all levels of UCR, from administrative staff to professors. As of August 2017, 103 faculty members have identified as first-generation, according to Dickson’s project website.

Enrollment doesn’t just depend on programs students can use once they arrive. UCR’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions Emily Engelschall said outreach efforts also have contributed to the increase.

“We make a real, concerted effort as we’re covering the state of California that the IE is our priority area,” she said. “The IE has a large community of first-gen students.”

According to data from the Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey, over 80% of Riverside County adults have graduated from high school, but of that population, only a quarter have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

For Armenta-Partida, college will be one of many challenges she has had to weather through since she left her home in Mexico. But she hopes UCR will help her succeed — and to prepare for the kind of future her parents couldn’t have.

“I don’t know what I want to do,” she said. “Whatever it is, I want to be able to help other people.”

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