This Friday, faculty and students shared moving stories about their experiences as FirstGen students at Biola’s third annual celebration of National FirstGen Day, organized by Student Enrichment and Intercultural Development. Biola defines FirstGen students as those whose parents did not complete an undergraduate degree at a university in America. Over the past seven years, Biola’s FirstGen population has grown from 5% to 23% of the student body, according to FirstGen director Lester Larios.
CELEBRATING FIRSTGEN STORIES
The Fireplace Pavilion was filled with both FirstGen and non-FirstGen students dancing to groovy music, chatting over free Chick-fil-A and adding their names to a board that proudly displayed the words, “FirstGen.” Students also had the opportunity to pick up free t-shirts or write letters to their FirstGen supporter, which is anybody who helped the students in their journey to university.
“This day, overall, just means a lot because this is the start of my legacy for my family,” said sophomore sociology major Jenissa Mendoza. “I see the beauty of people reaching out and helping. I don’t know where I’d be without the FirstGen program, honestly, because all of the ways they help us, whether it’s financially, emotionally, physically, just checking in on us means so much.”
For senior Christian ministries major DerJuan “Dee” Jacocks, the celebration was a time for students and faculty to gather together to recognize FirstGen students, in both the obstacles they face and the special community they have. Vice Provost Deborah Taylor shared a message of support for FirstGen students, giving stories of her own challenges as a FirstGen student.
The program highlighted several faculty members’ stories through a panel of five faculty who had experienced university as FirstGen students. Larios interviewed Itzel Reyes, Brian Glaze, Esther Hwang, Nicholas Bare and Kimberly Guzman, asking questions about why they chose to attend university and what some of their challenges were. Shortly afterward, Jacocks delivered a spoken word poem, sharing the impact of the FirstGen program on his life.
“Dee gave a bomb spoken word,” said senior business major Caleb Strauss. “I think it was really special to have the Vice Provost Deborah Taylor speaking here just as a really incredible way to show that FirstGen students are a part of our university at these different levels: both students, staff… It’s a really beautiful thing to get to celebrate how significant this unique experience is.”
COMING ALONGSIDE FIRSTGEN STUDENTS
Larios said that he values gatherings like the FirstGen celebration because it encourages FirstGen students to be proud of their background. It also raises awareness that the FirstGen program exists, welcoming FirstGen students to use the resources that the program offers them.
“We hope that non-FirstGen students… come alongside their friends and encourage them,” Larios said. “Biola is a very diverse community and we should be celebrating those things that make us us because those are God-given.”
Other departments, such as Admissions and Student Development, intentionally support the FirstGen department, Larios said. This support is shown by highlighting the program to prospective students and caring for the wellbeing of current FirstGen students. Larios said he believes this is one reason for the huge growth of FirstGen students at Biola in the last seven years. FirstGen students are encouraged to attend workshops throughout the year for help in practical ways, such as filling out the FAFSA or registering for classes.
“Among the Council for Christian [Colleges &] Universities, which Biola is a part of, we have one of the top FirstGen programs among the other Christian schools,” Larios said. “That’s a privilege, that’s an honor, and we want to continue stewarding it.”
INCREASING THE ACCESSIBILITY OF THE FIRSTGEN DEPARTMENT
A major facet of the FirstGen program is the four-year-old Summer Bridge Experience, which allows FirstGen students to attend workshops and receive mentorship that will help them navigate university life. This program is only offered to incoming students who received the FirstGen scholarship, which is currently given to 40 students per incoming class. Larios said he hopes to eventually extend this invitation to the Summer Bridge Experience to all FirstGen students in the future, not just those who received the FirstGen scholarship.
For now, he said, the program is kept small due to limited resources and faculty. Despite these limitations, Larios sees the FirstGen celebration as an opportunity to work toward achieving greater awareness and support for the FirstGen students and department.
“Our vision is to see every FirstGen student connected to their community, empowered in their story, and thriving in their identity,” Larios said. “We exist to connect FirstGen students with each other and to the overall Biola community. We want to let them know that their God-given story is unique and is special.”