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First

Gen

How Texas A&M University is helping first-generation students wear their status as a badge of honor.

// By Kara Bounds Socol

Walk by Victor Castillo’s office and you’re likely to find a gaggle of Texas A&M University freshmen hanging out there.

Castillo ’13 is an academic advisor for the College of Science’s Regents’ Scholars and Science Leadership Scholars programs. But to these first-generation Aggies from low-income families, he’s also a mentor with whom they can identify, a guide to academic success and a lifeline for the daily challenges that threaten to thwart their college aspirations.

A decade ago, the Bryan native was himself struggling to make it through school. A scholarship was his ticket into Texas A&M, but he was unprepared for the difficulties that awaited him—and initially unwilling to seek assistance.

“First-generation students like me are very stubborn, and we’re used to doing things on our own,” Castillo said.

College, of course, can be daunting for any freshman—especially when that college boasts more than 65,000 students. But while about 76% of the more than 53,000 undergraduates at Texas A&M’s main campus can turn to their college-educated parents for advice, encouragement and experience, the remaining quarter of the university’s undergraduate population doesn’t have that luxury. As a result, the retention rate of first-generation students has traditionally lagged behind that of those with college-educated parents.

Texas A&M has recently intensified its efforts to not only make the university affordable for first-generation students but to also address their specific barriers to graduation. The result is a multi-pronged endeavor designed to make their college transition smoother and their overall Texas A&M experience more successful and enjoyable.

Castillo is in the crux of this effort. He sees his role as building the community these students need to thrive at such a large university and serving as the college guide that he lacked. “Having no one to pave that path for me was hard,” Castillo said of his own college experience. “But now, I feel like I’ve paved that path for my first-generation students.”

Having no one to pave that path for me was hard, But now, I feel like I’ve paved that path for my first-generation students.

// VICTOR CASTILLO '13

First Gen

Demands and Expectations

When the federal government gave Texas a land grant with a mandate to teach agriculture, engineering and military sciences, virtually all of Texas A&M’s students were the first in their families to go to college.

Not anymore.

As of fall 2020, only 24% of the undergraduates enrolled at Texas A&M’s main campus were first-generation college students (approximately 12,500 students).

Dr. Tim Scott ’89, Texas A&M’s associate provost for academic affairs and student success, noted that in many ways, the hardships often faced by these first-generation students automatically puts them at a disadvantage when compared to their peers. Because of this disparity, the university is determined to provide them the tools to succeed.

In addition to the difficulties faced by most incoming freshmen, Scott cited additional challenges confronting first-generation students.

Some of these students graduated from high schools that were underfunded and under-resourced, he noted. Furthermore, a family emergency or an unexpected expense as seemingly minor as a broken computer can sideline their college aspirations. And when their classmates go out on the weekends, they may not have the spending money to join them.

Then there’s the matter of expectations. With the pride of their families and communities resting squarely on their shoulders, Scott said, the pressure to succeed can overwhelm first-generation students, leading them to believe that if they’re struggling, they’re failing.

“It’s no wonder that first-generation students often feel like they don’t fit in at Texas A&M,” Scott said.

First Gen

Support

The plight of first-generation students has long been on the radar of Texas A&M administrators.

Dr. Carol Fierke, former provost and executive vice president, launched the Student Success Initiative in 2018 to increase the university’s first-year retention rate and its four- and six-year graduation rates. The effort also aims to decrease achievement disparities in the student body, including the gap between first-generation students and those whose parents attended college.

With these goals in mind, Texas A&M opened the doors in 2019 to its Office for Student Success (OSS). Charged with “supporting initiatives focused on student persistence, achievement and timely graduation,” the OSS devotes considerable attention to the needs of Texas A&M’s first-generation college students.

Among the first to financially support the new OSS are Stephanie ’93 and Todd Routh ’86 of Austin. Through a $2.6 million commitment to the Texas A&M Foundation, the couple is bolstering the mission of the newly renamed Routh First-Generation Center, housed within the OSS. The center hosts the Gen1 Learning Community, provides cohesive oversight of the many first-generation endeavors on campus, ensures the availability of professional development opportunities, and offers activities to boost community and mentorship.

“Texas A&M not only teaches academics but also life skills,” Stephanie said. “First-generation students have drive and ambition. They can take what they learn back to their families, communities and careers, and share their education.”

Castillo added that supporting this particular group is ultimately a path to bettering the entire university.

“If we do a good job of helping our first-generation students, we help the campus achieve overall student success,” he said, “and the different perspectives of first-generation students will improve the education of all students.”

First Gen

Programs

Texas A&M’s multifaceted approach to supporting its first-generation college students focuses primarily on community, finances and academic achievement. The following are among the many ways Texas A&M strives to fulfill its commitment to these students.

Learning Communities:

Gen1 Learning Community

The Gen1 Learning Community is the Routh First-Generation Center’s academic success program for first-generation students. By bringing together these students whose scholarship affiliation formerly grouped them into separate communities, the OSS is encouraging them to celebrate their common first-generation identity.

Like other learning communities before it, the Gen1 Learning Community still offers such perks as peer mentorship, first-year seminars, and social and academic events. But it is also poised to encourage participation in high-impact practices geared toward preparing students for internships and the workplace.

“First-generation Aggies are an integral part of the fabric of Texas A&M,” explained Dr. Leticia Palomin ’12, program coordinator for the Gen1 Learning Community. “Learning communities help students transition into the college environment, build community, and thrive academically and socially to be retained and graduate.”

scholarship programs:

Science Leadership Scholars

For the past five years, Texas A&M’s College of Science has invited roughly two dozen of the highest-performing incoming freshmen to join the Science Leadership Scholars (SLS) Program. Geared specifically for first-generation students from low-income families, the four-year program financially and academically supports them through workshops, weekly meetings and even their own study lounge. But Sara Thigpin ’08, College of Science program manager for student success, said that it is mentors like Castillo who make the biggest impact.

“Before Victor became advisor, 65.2% of our SLS students remained in the College of Science after their first year,” she said. “But when he became advisor, his first class of SLS students had a 90.47% retention rate.”

first-year experience courses:

College of Architecture

In 2019, Texas A&M introduced its “Hullabaloo U” courses to ease the college transition. Required for all freshmen, the courses are tailored for different majors and student populations but are all designed with community, academic and personal success in mind.

When it came to developing its own Hullabaloo U course, Texas A&M’s College of Architecture was ahead of the curve. The college had previously developed a first-year experience course for its Regents’ Scholars to help with their college transition and to introduce them to the many campus resources at their disposal. Most of all, though, it built a sense of belonging.

“Our goal was to get these students plugged in, encourage them to develop a community and feel a part of the College of Architecture,” said Dr. David Wentling ’13, director of the college’s Office of Student Services.

Now a Hullabaloo U course, that mission remains. “The purpose is to develop independent self-learners who have the confidence to advocate for the things they need and the ability to identify the resources available on campus to meet those needs,” Wentling said. “By the end of the course, we want them to be able to do these things on their own.”

First Gen

Profiles

JuanitaRocha '21

It took two years for recent graduate Juanita Rocha ’21 to admit to her parents how much she had struggled as a college freshman.

Her family’s immense pride that she was at Texas A&M meant that failure was not an option. Seeking help, however, was tantamount to admitting defeat.

If she performed as poorly her second semester as she had her first, Rocha would lose her Regents’ and Brownsville scholarships. Without that assistance, her one shot to attain a Texas A&M education would disappear.

Today, Rocha can’t stress enough the importance of the support she received at this critical juncture from her Aggie Collegiates Ready to Explore the World (ACREW) learning community (now part of the Gen1 Learning Community).

“All of us in the ACREW community are first-generation, low-income students,” she explained. “Our similarities really helped us bond. We all struggled, and although we didn’t say that out loud, we all knew.”

As she continued to wrestle with her circumstances, others intervened. Her ACREW peer mentor, Raquel Sapon ’20, gave her the support she needed. Mike Hernandez III ’83, whose gift founded the Brownsville Scholars Program in 2016, showed her what a Brownsville native could accomplish. And Dr. Leticia Palomin, her learning community coordinator, encouraged her to share her story.

By the end of her sophomore year, Rocha was a survivor who finally felt like a full-fledged Aggie.

Like Hernandez, Rocha hopes to use her life to help Rio Grande Valley residents. She plans to follow her bachelor’s degree in public health with both master’s and doctoral degrees, equipping her to pursue a career in health policy.

As a peer mentor herself, Rocha also assisted freshmen who were in the same place she was three years earlier. Instead of hiding from her background, however, she proudly embraced it. “Yes, I am a first-generation, low-income student,” she said. “But because of that, I know how to work hard to get where I want to be.”

Yes, I am a first-generation, low-income student, but because of that, I know how to work hard to get where I want to be.

// JUANITA ROCHA '21

LizzettTapia '23

Texas A&M University sophomore Lizzett Tapia’s parents know firsthand how tough life can be without an education. Hailing from Mexico, neither attended school beyond the elementary level. When they immigrated to Texas, they were determined to do whatever it took to ensure their children seized the educational opportunities they were denied.

“Going to college was something I always knew I would do,” Tapia ’23 explained. “There was no other option. My parents came here to give me a better life, which obviously meant that I should take advantage of every educational opportunity possible. I wanted to make them proud.”

For high school, Tapia’s parents enrolled her in the Rosie Sorrells School of Education and Social Services, part of the Townview Magnet Center complex in Dallas’ East Oak Cliff neighborhood. Her high school experience included a two-year internship, where she assisted a first-grade math teacher.

When touring Texas A&M, Tapia felt an instant connection. “I saw myself studying at the Memorial Student Center and going to campus events,” she said. “I felt like I belonged there.”

But at the end of the day, she knew that her decision came down to financial aid. The offer of both a Regents’ Scholarship and a Century Scholarship ultimately made her choice an easy one.

At the time she made her college decision, Tapia, a mathematics major, could not have anticipated the critical support role that the Regents’ Scholars Program would play. Beyond financial assistance, she said, her fellow Regents’ Scholars and the program’s staff members have provided her a safety net that has made her college experience much easier. “During my freshman year, I struggled to find solutions to my problems on my own since I couldn’t ask my parents,” she said. “The peer mentor I was assigned really helped me, as did my Regents’ Scholar advisor.”

This year, Tapia is giving back by serving as a peer mentor herself.

As for her parents, Tapia said they’re delighted that she’s attending such a “big, prestigious university.”

“They are really, really proud of me,” she said with a smile.

My parents came here to give me a better life, which obviously meant that I should take advantage of every educational opportunity possible. I wanted to make them proud.

// Lizzett Tapia '23

JadenBorders '22

Jaden Borders ’22 was a high-achiever at Prairiland High School in the small Northeast Texas town of Pattonville. His involvements included the National FFA Organization, the Beta Club and the robotics team. He ultimately graduated as salutatorian of his 54-member class.

Borders also loved to play sports, particularly baseball and basketball. His senior year, though, he dropped his athletic pursuits to make time for a more pressing need: finding the scholarships crucial to attend college.

“I knew going in that paying for college would be on my shoulders,” he said.

A full-ride scholarship offered by a nearby university looked to be Borders’ ticket to a college education. But then Texas A&M came through with a Regents’ Scholarship and a Science Leadership Scholarship, adding to an FFA scholarship he had already received. While he originally planned to be an optometrist, a lecture in Dr. Jerome Menet’s biology class on brain neurons his sophomore year—combined with memories of his younger sister’s struggle with epilepsy—induced Borders to change his major to neuroscience. Even though he initially found himself academically behind many of his peers who had graduated from large high schools, Borders, now a junior, has managed to maintain a 4.0 grade point average. Medical school is part of his future plans.

Borders points to the Science Leadership Scholars Program as his main source of support at Texas A&M, even in matters beyond academics. There, he has received advice on a wide range of subjects, from college study skills and budgeting scholarship funds to choosing a meal plan.

“They helped me set up a plan for things like buying groceries for one person,” said Borders, who has six siblings from two combined families. “I’ve been lucky that I haven’t faced any huge disaster so far, but I know if I do, anyone in the Science Leadership Scholars Program can help me figure it out.”

I’ve been lucky that I haven’t faced any huge disaster so far, but I know if I do, anyone in the Science Leadership Scholars Program can help me figure it out.

// Jaden Borders '22

First Gen

Funding Opportunities

To actively recruit and retain high-caliber, first-generation students at Texas A&M, the Texas A&M Foundation maintains two significant scholarship endowments.

The Regents’ Scholars Program

Each year, approximately 750 freshmen join the Regents’ Scholars Program. Historically, eligibility requires that neither of the student’s parents earned a bachelor’s degree and that the family’s annual adjusted gross income is under $40,000.

Roughly one-third of Texas A&M’s full-time, first-generation students hold Regents’ Scholarships, providing $6,000 per year for up to four years. The Regents’ Scholars Program is an academic success community that requires freshmen to live on campus and attend program-related events. These scholars typically develop a close-knit social and support community.

A $150,000 gift creates a Regents’ Scholarship endowment to support first-generation students in perpetuity, while a gift of $24,000 funds a one-time, four-year scholarship for one first-generation student.

The Foundation Excellence Award Program

Many first-generation students are from historically disadvantaged groups often underrepresented at Texas A&M. These groups include minorities and those from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. In 1999, donors to the Texas A&M Foundation endeavored to make Texas A&M’s student body better reflect the diversity of the state. Today, the Foundation Excellence Award (FEA) Program continues to support these students based on their academic qualifications, extracurricular activities and financial need.

A $50,000 gift permanently endows an FEA scholarship that provides recipients annual $2,500 stipends for up to four years, while a gift of $10,000 funds a one-time, four-year award for one student.

Additional Opportunities

From an emergency fund to help students with unexpected expenses to financial support for the Office for Student Success to regionally focused scholarships, first-generation students benefit from the generosity of donors in a host of ways.

To discover the perfect fit for your gift, contact Patrick Williams ’92, vice president for engagement, at the bottom of this page.

Contact
  • Patrick Williams '92

  • Vice President for Engagement-Division 1
  • Vice Presidents
  • Call: (979) 458-4493

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