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Illustration of students in a classroom with the Story Titled The Confidence to Persist
CPP Magazine

The Confidence to Persist

Underrepresented, first-generation and low-income students break barriers, sometimes against all odds

By Melanie Johnson

Equity is Meeing Students Where They Are

Chris Yanez showed up to his high school’s orientation for Upward Bound in a football uniform caked with dirt and reeking of his sweat.

Chris YaenzHe hadn’t planned to attend at all. But when his mom found his invitation to the meeting poking out of his backpack, Yanez was forced to go “as is.”

As a high school freshman, he joined Upward Bound, a federally funded Department of Education college preparation program for high school students who are first-generation or low income. After some initial struggles, which included getting booted from the dorms at Pitzer College during the summer program for organizing pillow fights and sneaking out after hours, Yanez was given a second chance. By his junior year at Ontario High School, he was working hard to improve his grades and returning to Upward Bound that summer at Pitzer.

“Disappointment wasn’t a good feeling,” he says. “I told myself that if they could be patient with me and understanding, then I could change.”

Buoyed by the support of his Upward Bound tutors and the prodding of his single mom of three sons — an immigrant from Ecuador — a more confident Yanez improved his grades and enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona. He began working for Upward Bound in 2012 as a tutor and also served as resident advisor on campus for three years during the summer.

After completing his bachelor’s degree and earning a master’s and credential in school counseling from Cal State Los Angeles, Yanez (’15, psychology) returned to Cal Poly Pomona’s Upward Bound in 2020 as an academic advisor to help students a lot like himself.

“I want to give back to the community,” he says. “I tell students I wasn’t the typical 4.0 student taking AP classes. Whatever opportunity I got, I took it and ran with it.”

Fostering Potential

Upward Bound is among dozens of equity programs that Cal Poly Pomona offers to ensure underrepresented minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged students achieve academic success.

Some programs, such as Upward Bound and the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), date back to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s while others were created in recent years in response to the ever-changing needs of students.

At Cal Poly Pomona, 52 percent of the more than 27,000 students enrolled are underrepresented minorities. About 46 percent of undergraduates receive Pell grants, federal funding for students who demonstrate exceptional financial need.

There is a 4 to 5 percent equity gap in student achievement for low-income students and a 10 percent gap for underrepresented minorities. That gap needs to be zero, says Terri Gomez, associate provost for student success, equity and innovation.  

“Unless we’re targeting these students, we aren’t going to close the gap,” she says.

Students who are first-generation, low income or who didn’t have the academic advantages of some of their peers may feel as if they don’t belong on a university campus. Equity programs help to dispel that notion by looking at what students do have rather than what they don’t, Gomez says.

“We often look at students through a deficit lens, but we should change our perspective,” she says. “These programs say, ‘We have a first-generation student who against all odds is here and they bring with them cultural assets and a deep commitment to breaking barriers.’ When programs take this approach, it helps students. They see that what they bring matters in these programs, so it matters in the classroom.”

While the focus of the programs may vary, they share commonalities: mentoring, a study space where students can gather and connect, and academic support like supplemental instruction, tutoring and workshops.

They are largely funded with grants, but some programs also benefit from the generosity of donors who have provided for scholarships, laptops, and resources for those experiencing food and housing insecurity. In 2019-20, donors provided more than $250,000 to address students’ basic needs and other urgent needs at the university.

“Community support programs only go so far,” says Gina Johnson, executive director of central development. “Philanthropy really makes a difference in helping students excel and achieve success. People have been very generous throughout this pandemic. They are not forgetting about students who need the most help.”

Laptop Distribution during COVID-19

A Growing Need 

Both Gomez and Leticia Guzman Scott (’90, business administration; ’94, MBA), executive director of student support and equity programs, say that the COVID-19 pandemic further underscores how vital equity programs are. The pandemic has exacerbated economic disparities for low-income and underrepre-sented minority students, uncovering a significant technological divide.

Since the University Library and computer labs are unavailable, the university launched several initiatives for students to receive a free loaner or lease-to-own laptop, as well as lending Wi-Fi hotspots to bridge the digital gap.

Donors have played an important part. A new crowdfunding campaign helped more than 100 incoming students secure a personal device through the Bronco Bookstore’s discounted laptop program. In another effort, the College of Business Administration secured 240 laptops and 200 hotspots, including one year of internet service, and plans to continue working to secure more from InterConnection in partnership with Avanade.

Guzman Scott’s office oversees EOP, which serves 2,700 students throughout the year. Some are in Renaissance Scholars, a year-round program for former foster youth. EOP Transition Programs such as Summer Bridge and Transfer Bridge help incoming freshmen and transfers. EOP Tutorial Services and the Veterans Resource Center provide tutoring, mentoring and a physical space for students to connect. In the last couple of years, a new pilot program connected 24 academic coaches with about 400 first-generation, underrepresented freshmen in the College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences.

Guzman Scott, an EOP alumna, says the program started as a movement in 1969 as social justice activists pushed for equity in access to education. Equity hasn’t been fully realized yet, so programs like EOP are critical, she says.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for EOP,” she says. “A lot of EOP students are not on a trajectory to successfully graduate from college when they first get into the program. Then, they learn about graduate school, getting their dream job and how it can transform their future family’s life, as well as their own lives.”

Demand for EOP and other equity programs has increased over the past 30 years, as the number of first-generation and transfer students has risen, Guzman Scott says. As of 2019, more than half of Cal Poly Pomona students are first generation and transfers — 57 percent and 51 percent respectively.

Equity programs on campus are available to assist students at every stage — transitioning from high school to college, navigating the university years, and going from college to graduate school programs or a career.

During an Upward Bound summer session in 2018, Professor Steve Alas speaks to high school students about opportunities for underrepresented minorities in science.

The Confidence to Persist

At a conference several years ago, Rick Quintero recalls an attorney from a Fortune 300 company taking the stage. Donning an expensive Brooks Brothers suit, the woman talked about her participation in Upward Bound and how the program lifted her and her family out of poverty.

For Quintero, executive director of Cal Poly Pomona’s TRIO Pre-College Programs, the message resonated: Education is the key to socioeconomic mobility.

“We not only changed that woman’s life, but we are changing her family’s life for an entire generation,” he says. “That’s the power. It’s like a drug. We get hooked on changing the communities we grew up in.”

That drive has kept Quintero working in TRIO programs since he arrived at Cal Poly Pomona in 1995. He oversees eight Department of Education grants, with the majority funding Upward Bound at 10 high schools in Pomona, Chino, Montclair and Ontario. Students attend Saturday academies and a six-week summer residential program, and parents learn about applying to college and securing financial aid.

Participants aren’t required to attend Cal Poly Pomona — as part of the program, they apply to three CSUs, three UCs and three private universities — but 35 percent do apply to be a Bronco. Upward Bound works to instill the confidence that first-generation and low-income students need to persist.

“Students don’t drop out of college because they get an F in statistics,” Quintero says. “They drop out often for economic reasons or they have imposter syndrome. We work with them on self-esteem and leadership skills.”

Equal Access

The bulk of equity programs on campus, including I AM FIRST (first-generation students), Project SUCCESS (men of color), Bronco Scholars (first-year students needing additional math support) and PolyTransfer (transfer students), are designed to support students as they work toward earning their degrees.

For example, the Disability Resource Center (DRC) and its ARCHES program that provides academic advising, peer tutoring and mentoring, help ensure that students with disabilities receive equal access. Students get help with how to meet deadlines, study more efficiently and take better notes, says DRC Director Tracee Passeggi.

“Without having accommodations, our students wouldn’t be able to have equal access,” she says. “Our staff is innovative and really puts access for students with disabilities at the forefront.”

Donors Peter and Tina Strand gave $50,000 in 2010 in honor of their son Jasen, an engineering student who died that year.

Last year, the couple contributed an additional $50,000 to expand the President’s Scholars program, which now designates one of the 26 scholarships for a student with a disability. (Turn to page 13 for more on the Strand family’s memorial fund.)

The DRC also supports students in their efforts to make change, such as in the case of Paul An, who graduated this summer. In his junior year, he created United with Differences, an annual campus event that spotlights disabled students. 

Preparing Students For The Next Phase

Biological Sciences Professor Steve Alas is not satisfied with just helping students earn a bachelor’s degree. As a professor and alumnus, he’s invested in preparing them for graduate school and a career.
It’s why Alas (’94, biology) runs the university’s chapter of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participants (LSAMP), a federal program that prepares students for graduate school, and Science Educational Enhancement Services (SEES), which boosts the enrollment and retention of underrepresented minority students. It’s also why he created the Scholars Program in Research Education and Science (SPIRES), a National Science Foundation grant-funded program that readies students for STEM careers. As an alumnus, he served as president of the Cal Poly Pomona Latino Alumni chapter and is currently a member.

“Through the course of my life, there have been people who stepped in and helped me along the way,” Alas says. “There’s really no way to pay back what was done for me. I came to realize that the people who helped me stood on the shoulders of people before them and that they were paying it forward. The desire to pay it forward myself is what drives me to create opportunities to students.”

The equity programs he leads provide low-income students with a stipend (up to $5,000), as well as professional development activities, workshops and research opportunities with faculty.

It’s especially important for Cal Poly Pomona to mentor and prepare students for life after college. College retention is critical, but so is setting students up for success in graduate school and the workforce, where many women and underrepresented minorities leave the STEM fields, Alas says.

“Unconscious bias and environments that tailor to a ‘one size fits all’ that don’t nurture people of varying talents — that’s the barrier,” Alas says. “Studies have found that women and underrepresented minorities are less compelled to seek roles in leadership and fight for higher pay. We teach them how to advocate for themselves.”

Abigail Trujillo, a junior studying chemistry, participates in SEES, LSAMP and SPIRES. The first-generation student says growing up in Fontana, her parents pushed her and her younger sister Vivika, a freshman majoring in Spanish, to go to college but weren’t familiar with the application process or financial aid.

The aspiring toxicologist says the financial assistance, mentoring, research opportunities, and textbook and equipment programs enable her to focus on her academics and prepare for graduate school. The professional development workshops offer important lessons.

“They help you gain those interpersonal skills for career or grad school that you might not have developed or refined,” she says. “It gives you that competitive edge. There are a lot of people getting their degrees. You kind of need that edge to be in a better position than everybody else.”

Equity programs help students navigate around obstacles they may face on their individual paths to success. Whether it’s the staff member who makes sure students find needed resources, the professor who mentors a budding scholar, the student who tutors their peers, or the donor who provides scholarships to deserving recipients — everyone has a role to play. 

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