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Priming First-Generation Students for College Success

August 30, 2018
A university program creates a pipeline to opportunity for high school students

“I will be the first generation of my family to attend college, so I wasn’t very sure where to start,” said Candy Dubon, a junior at Siloam Springs High School in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.

Fortunately for Candy and dozens of Northwest Arkansas high school students, a new University of Arkansas program—The College Access Initiative Pipeline—had freshly launched to help light the way.

They would be the inaugural class of a program designed to empower, educate and equip first-generation, low-income and/or minority students with the information, resources and skills necessary to gain entry to, and succeed in, college.

The Walton Family Foundation ranks among the supporters of this endeavor, which recruited its first class of participants in December of last year. All are now heading into their junior year of high school, and 85% would be among the first generation in their family to attend college.

“I knew the Pipeline program was a good fit for me,” explains Candy. “They had everything ready for us. They helped me look at colleges, understand the minimum requirements and determine what would be a good fit.”

Siloam Spring High School juniors Dayse Castro and Margarita Lopez.

Often times, program coordinators take on an almost familial role themselves, explains Sarah Draine, the initiative’s director.

“These students don’t always have the necessary support at home. In some cases, the parents don’t have the experience of college; in others, parents work more than one job, which prevents them from becoming more fully involved. We give our students all the little reminders—'hey, it’s time to take action’ or ‘let’s go on a campus tour’—all the things that add up to helping make those decisions.”

Throughout the school year, students meet with coordinators for guidance on the college application process, financial aid, choosing courses that help meet college entry requirements and developing social skills for interviews and for adjusting to living away from home.

For fellow Siloam Springs junior Gisel Amador, the Pipeline “opened my eyes to all the people who want to help me.” And, she’s clear on her ambitions: “I want to earn my degree in international business law. I’m bilingual, and I want to help people find ways to connect.”

Over the summer, students in the program have the opportunity to experience campus life firsthand by participating in on-campus programs across the nation—sleeping in residence halls, meeting current college students and potential mentors and touring the campus.

Candy participated in the ACT Academy at the University of Arkansas. “At first it was intimidating because you are staying in the dorms overnight with a complete stranger. But once you get to know your roommate, it makes the experience so much better. Now when I start college, seeing new people won’t be so intimidating.”

Candy has since put the University of Arkansas at the top of her list and plans to pursue a degree in engineering.

Catherine Muñoz and her family at the Pipeline Family Picnic.

Sarah and her colleagues believe that it’s often the support networks students bring with them and create on campus that determine long-term success.

“We’ve found that students who are able to build support networks are staying and graduating in greater numbers. These long-term high school programs are one way to help them succeed in college. It’s a slow build. They get practice in how to seek support, follow through and take it slow and steady to make it to the end.

Oftentimes program coordinators interact not only with the students, but parents, as well.

One recent example stands out to Sarah. A program coordinator received a mid-summer email from a student who very much wanted to quit marching band. The coordinator drove out and met the student and her mother at their local library to talk through the issues.

“She and her mom were under the impression that marching band could lead to a full-ride scholarship, which is not entirely correct. To top it off, the girl didn’t want to major in music. We agreed that if she were to quit, she needed to maintain or increase her already high grades and start researching and connecting the dots about her future.”

I can show others that even if there are bumps in the road, if you work hard in school, you can move past them.
Gisel Amador, Junior, Siloam Springs High School

The student did go on to quit the band—and have many more conversations with her mother about what kind of career she wanted in the future. She wanted steady, reliable employment that allowed her to work with people. This soul-searching made the student more curious about her own mother’s career in human resources—which shares many of these characteristics.

The ripple effects of these trailblazing students can hardly be overstated, according to Sarah. “Most of our students are first-generation college hopefuls, so they can and will change their family’s trajectory in a big way.”

Of her college aspirations and experience in the Pipeline so far, Gisel is hopeful. “I want to set a good example for my little sister. My mom struggled a lot when she came from Mexico, and I can show others that even if there are bumps in the road, if you work hard in school, you can move past them.”

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