Graduation cap & tassel with the words “1st Gen” on the Mortar Board and a scroll labelled CSU Dominguez Hills. Illustration by Darlene Maes.
By Melanie Gerner, Staff Reporter
Courage, hope, resilience and persistence were the main themes of last week’s virtual “Celebrate First-Generation College Students” event at CSUDH.
Despite the online-only environment, the CSUDH Office of Educational Partnerships managed to deliver, primarily via Instagram, a week-long celebration of the more than 50% of Toros who qualify as first-generation.
The tone of the five-day event, which started Nov. 2, was struck by Dr. Dang Chonwerawong, Associate Vice President for Student Success, with her own first-generation student success story.
“From my parents, who only had a fourth grade education I learned to be persistent, hardworking, resilient and always hope for a better future and most importantly never give up,” Dang said. “Today I celebrate with you.”
The celebration included about 185 registered students with more students interacting on Instagram, a live luncheon, 15 tips from alumni about succeeding as first-gen students, and CSUDH dance team members offering testimonies about their experiences. The event reached over 10,406 accounts and received more than 30,000 impressions boasting over 1,000 likes.The kickoff video itself had upwards of 1,700 visits. Most event interactions came from participants 25-34 years-old and were primarily women.
Last year, Trio SSS hosted CSUDH’s inaugural one day First-Generation Celebration on the East Walkway. That event was inspired by the 2017 national first-generation movement celebration event launched by the Council for Opportunity in Education and the Naspa Center for First-Generation Student Success. This year, CSUDH has expanded the first-generation celebration as a week-long event with the University Advisement Center (UAC) hosting a virtual first-gen retreat on Saturday and Sunday.
Ten campus departments and groups created and shared celebration content, including the Career Center, Toro Dreamer Success Center, UAC, Encounter To Excellence and Educational Opportunity Program. More than 25 videos from faculty and staff offered their personal experiences and praise to students, while recognizing all the sacrifices necessary to earn a degree, during the event that was geared to support and celebrate first-generation students.
Alfredo Benitez, outreach recruiter for the Office of Outreach and School Relations, is a first-generation college student and CSUDH alumnus who offered tips and a video, assuring students that all the sacrifices will be worth it in the end. Benitez acknowledged that being first-generation is difficult and is a process worth celebrating.
You belong here and you earned your spot here at CSUDH,” Benitez said. “I want you to know that those late nights, early mornings, stressful days will be worth it and you’ve got this.
The celebration kicked off with a heartfelt welcome from the event chair, Elizabeth Hernandez Hanna. In a true-to-COVID fashion, Hanna reached out to viewers in a relatable way from her family room where her children sat on the couch and watched movies in the background.
Hanna is the director of the CSUDH Trio Student Support Services (SSS) program, a first generation CSUDH alumna and a proud Toro. Hanna encouraged all first-generation students to participate in the national celebration of first-generation college students.
On Monday, Teddy the Toro, a first-generation college student, helped clear up any misconceptions by defining who is and who is not a first-generation college student in a brief yet informative video. According to the video, if a student’s parent(s) or guardian(s) did not earn a bachelor’s degree, that student is first-generation.
Other dignitaries who spoke during the week included Mayra Sorianao, the director of Encounter to Excellence, Rodrigo Rodrigo, academic adviser to the CSUDH Veteran’s Resource Center, and Ana Miriam Barragan Sontoyo, the director of Toro Dreamer Success Center.
“I think being a first generation student means you are often having to navigate processes and institutions on your own with very little knowledge of what to do, how to do it or what to say,” Soriano said. “I also think that being a first-generation student affords you resilience, and a quality to persevere.”
A first generation virtual lunch and community conversation was hosted on Wednesday Nov. 4, by Rodrigo. He wanted to bring students together in a live, safe space where they could share their journeys, struggles and continued growth while ensuring everyone that they are not alone.
“It was great hearing some of the accomplishments they have done, it was very impactful and everybody shared,” Rodrigo said. “Strangers who had never met each other were clapping for each other, they were cheering each other on, they were happy for one another’s success.”
Associated Students Inc. (ASI) provided 145 Grub Hub $15 food vouchers to students registered for the event, as a way to enhance the virtual luncheon experience. More than 20 participants joined the virtual luncheon and shared their personal narratives of what it means to be a first-generation student. The theme of courage was apparent in the stories shared during the luncheon.
Barragan Sontoyo, director of the Toro Dreamer Success Center, shared her experience as a first-generation college student, lobbying in Washington D.C. and Sacramento despite not being able to vote herself. According to Barragan Sontoyo, being first-generation means getting involved and trying new things.
It [being first-generation] also means learning to advocate for yourself, for your family and for your community,” Barragan Santoyo said. “I encourage you as a first generation college student to do the same; use your voice, use your power to create a positive change in our community.”
The event closed Friday with a video from Hanna and the event planning committee thanking the community and encouraging students to “be resilient, take breaks and reach out when you need to, embrace your mistakes, be kind to yourself and stay motivated.”
Hanna said the First-Generation Celebration planning committee felt forced to go beyond Zoom and engage students on social media. Planning for next year’s celebration will begin in January 2021 and will likely include a social media component, she said.
“The victory here is that we created a [virtual] program, we reinvented the wheel,” Hanna said. “We wanted to dedicate a week to first-generation students, staff and faculty. We are definitely making an impact.”