Motivation to obtain a college education can come from a variety of people, places and life experiences. For UCI undergrad Steven Zacarias-Herrera, the road to a college degree wound through the fields his mother worked, day after day, to ensure his family had food on their table.

“Growing up, I can remember a particular day I left for school and it was raining,” he said. “I was thinking about my mom having to be outside, bending over picking strawberries all day and I knew then I had to find a way to get her out of that environment – and that was through my education.”

His story was one of six shared by UCI first generation college students at a Santa Ana High School event last quarter attended by more than 120 Latino parents. The information session – called “Padres Night” – is held yearly through a partnership with the high school and UCI’s Latina/o Student Psychological Association (LSPA). Delivered fully in Spanish, the event helps parents of first generation college students – some of whom are first generation high school students – learn what they can expect when their son or daughter goes to college.

“The university system can be tough to navigate for any new student and their family,” said Jeanett Castellanos, social sciences lecturer with security of employment and LSPA faculty advisor. “Now imagine being a non-English speaker and/or never having attended college – or for some, not having completed high school.”

The experience for her is a familiar one; Castellanos, who was raised in a single-parent household, was the first in her family to finish high school, making her pathway to a university even more unfamiliar and daunting. Yet, she persevered and graduated from UCI in ’94 with honors and went on to complete a master’s in education with a counseling specialization, and a Ph.D. in higher education at Washington State University.  The experience has been her inspiration to help other first generation students understand the education system, and she’s committed to assisting students in bridging the cultural and educational demands in order to attain educational success.

At UCI, there is a need; last year, more than half of the campus’s freshman and transfer class was first generation.

“We want to help parents with the psychological strain or challenge they have in sending their child to college,” she said. “Cultural adjustments, emotional preparations – how do they balance family and school? How do they support their children when the child is struggling academically? How do kids stay in contact with family? These are all questions first-time parents of college students have and we want to help.”

An expert on the college experience of racial and ethnic minority students and the psychosociocultural factors that affect their retention, Castellanos knows that familial involvement plays a huge role in a student’s successful completion of a four-year degree.

“Arming parents with information about what to expect helps,” she said.

Parents at the event receive a folder with a resource sheet about scholarships and UCI info. They also receive an in-depth manual on how to navigate higher education, all written and compiled by LSPA students and mentors, and all in Spanish.

But perhaps the most helpful part of the evening is a video featuring success stories told by other parents, followed by an open question period and dialogue between UCI panelists and parents.

“Parents enjoy the event and particularly love listening to the student panel about their college experiences,” said Arlette Ridoutt, an academic counselor at Santa Ana High School and ’94 UCI alumna. “The video where the parents share the importance of college and the role of sacrifice and support is central; parents really appreciate hearing how other Latina/o parents helped their children get through college. Our student population is 98% Latino with 72% Spanish-speaking, so having an event like this for parents is really a bridge builder.”

LSPA students start prepping for the annual event in September so that their answers to questions are clear and concise with accurate information. Santa Ana High School community and family outreach liaison Elizabeth Mejia Ortiz helps put out word to families and principal Jeff Bishop helps ensure the night’s success with an opening welcome.

“We host a raffle for parents with gift cards and we fundraise throughout the year to gift these to the parents,” said LSPA co-president Joseline Santos. “We want parents of college-bound kids to know they’re important in the process and that a four-year degree is attainable for their son or daughter.”

With nearly 98,000 student applications for fall 2016 – more than 20,000 of which were California-resident Chicano/Latino freshman – efforts like these really matter.

“Events like these can really be the key difference in making students – and parents – feel like they can navigate a rigorous four-year program,” said Castellanos.

And at UCI, we can’t wait to welcome them into the growing Anteater family.

-Heather Ashbach, UCI School of Social Sciences


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