Published May 18, 2022
Karen Diaz Fernandez, a UB student in the accelerated pharmacy program, is the youngest daughter in her family, and the first to attend college in the United States. As an incoming first-year student, Fernandez received an email from the Proud To Be First initiative, which offered a free course in the Summer Bridge program.
She decided she had nothing to lose — if anything, there was something to gain.
“It gave me a head start before I even stepped foot onto campus,” said Fernandez. “It allowed me to open up and ask questions and mentally prepared me to start school.”
Proud To Be First is the umbrella term for UB’s first-generation initiative. Proud To Be First provides connections to resources, peer mentoring, networking opportunities, tutoring, and workshops to students who, like Fernandez, are the first of their family to attend college.
Now, UB has been designated as a 2022-23 First-gen Forward institution by the Center for First-generation Student Success to acknowledge the university’s devotion to uplifting first-generation students in higher education.
The First-gen Forward distinction allows UB to join a network of 268 institutions dedicated to fostering first-generation student success. This network encourages intercampus communication regarding challenges they currently face and possible solutions by establishing practices and programs generated through institution-specific feedback.
When the initiative was first established in 2020, it was only a peer mentoring program with 20 peer mentors and over 200 students.
“Proud To Be First lifted a weight off my shoulders,” Fernandez said.
Before, Fernandez felt alone. She struggled mentally and emotionally as a first-generation student because she had questions and no one to guide her through the application process or her first year at a university. Now, she’s more confident asking questions and establishing relationships. She realized people at UB are willing to help.
The effort to promote an environment where first-generation students can flourish has been led by Cheryl Taplin, senior associate vice provost and director of student success and academic support, and Vivian Jimenez, director of tutoring and academic support services. They oversee the Proud To Be First initiative and have developed many of the programs that helped UB achieve this feat.
“I’ve been in higher education for a long time,” Jimenez said. “All I do when I do this job is think about when I was in their seat.”
Passion is a common ingredient in the Proud To Be First program. The staff members love what they do. Jimenez enjoys seeing students recognize the value and pay it back. She wants to make sure these students rise and succeed at UB.
Fernandez wants to provide the support and advice she received from her mentor to help relieve stress among other incoming students. Now, she wants to be a mentor herself and give back what she learned.
“I gained such an amazing support system. I have nothing but gratitude for the people in the program,” said Fernandez. “Now, as a mentor, I have a future job doing what I always wanted to do — helping other first-generation students not feel alone and ease their journey.”
The program has grown substantially since Fernandez’s first year. It’s added a Summer Bridge program that offers a five-week course (pre-calculus or social justice) with tuition and fees waived, and assigns a peer mentor for the student’s first year. It includes a weekly success course, designed to complement the student’s academic path. This course helps develop skills necessary to succeed in academics or a profession, such as study skills, time-management and maximizing their learning style.
“I feel like the importance of our program is being able to connect students with our resources on campus,” Jimenez said. “Students seek opportunities that will encourage them to move forward and reach their full potential.”
Proud To Be First already has led to an increase in first-generation retention, according to Jimenez. These students have found a place they call home, she says.
Jimenez has an immediate answer when asked the most important encouragement she could give to a first-generation student.
“You belong,” she said.
It would be interesting to know what percentage of the faculty also falls into this "first-gen" category.