Like more than half of UC Merced students, Jesse Bernal came from a family where neither of his parents graduated from a four-year university or college. So he knows what he's talking about when he discusses the challenges faced by first-generation students carving their way through campus life on the way to earning a degree.
First-generation college students exemplify the pioneering spirit that UC Merced fosters and celebrates, but even the most determined and hard-working pioneers can use a hand navigating unchartered territory.
The student regent is applying his UC experience as the new Fiat Lux Scholars Program coordinator. The program was created by the Student Advising and Learning Center to lay the foundation of a support system designed specifically for the benefit of first-generation students on campus. The program is supported by a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE), and begins with a text-book rental program unique to UC Merced.
"We have found that many of these students delay buying or don't buy textbooks at all because of the expense, which becomes a serious obstacle to success," Bernal said. "The rental program provides textbooks for these students at 30 percent of the bookstore price."
Demographically, first-generation students tend to be from under-represented minority groups and/or from disadvantaged backgrounds, and tend not to be as involved in campus life and activities because they are unaware of the resources that are at their disposal and how to take advantage of them.
"I have a similar background and can empathize with first-generation students at UC Merced. I relate to what they are going through, and I'm hoping this will make them feel comfortable and open up," Bernal said. "I hope that I am an example that you can overcome some big obstacles. I want each student to have the mentality that they are scholars and capable of succeeding academically."
As the program ramps up in its first year, Bernal is focusing on recruiting and reaching out to the first-year students that have been identified as struggling academically and lacking the participation levels of typically successful students.
Participation in the Fiat Lux Scholars Program folds the students into a larger, supportive environment within the Student Advising and Learning Center, where they are introduced to the benefits of taking advantage of campus resources like academic workshops, mentoring and freshman orientation classes.
The goal is for Bernal to be able to track the links between participation levels and academic success, and continue to design effective strategies for reaching out to and serving the students who need them the most.
Bernal is enthusiastic about his opportunities at UC Merced. "I fell in love with this campus every time I came here as a student regent. The environment, the students; they're amazing."
Bernal is working on his Ph.D. in cultural perspectives of education through UC Santa Barbara, and has been tracking the UCSB Freshman Summer Start Bridge program for the past four years. This work and the work he is doing at UC Merced will provide essential hard data into the connections between student participation levels and academic success, and will lead to the development of more essential student support programs in the future.