By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Kayla Fonseca felt alone when she went to college.
Her Mexican parents didn’t graduate high school, much less know about American higher education. She had to wing it.
While she found her way, earning a bachelor’s degree at Northern Arizona University and a master’s at Grand Canyon University, Fonseca wants to make it easier for others who follow in her footsteps.
She is part of GCU's new initiative during Welcome Week, which begins Aug. 30, to help Spanish-speaking and first-generation students and their families get off on the right foot – and not feel alone.
“A lot of my inspiration for this, a lot of the ideas, came from my personal walk through higher education. I remember what it was like for my parents,” said Fonseca, a student conduct coordinator for Residence Life.
It was hard for her parents to understand what she was going through at NAU and what resources were available because communication was often in English.
“Being a first-generation student, I had to navigate the higher-education waters alone,” she said. “If they would have had an orientation, my parents could go to it would have helped them understand.”
Fonseca will lead New Parent/Family Orientations in Spanish, part of the outreach effort that also includes language translation volunteers at key points across campus who wear identifying shirts and buttons, as well as orientation materials and online modules in Spanish.
In the past, GCU supplied headsets for Spanish translation at orientations but in surveys found that not many used them because they didn’t want to stand out in the crowd, said Charity Norman, Director of Welcome Programs. Family members ended up asking their student to translate instead, which distracted from the experience.
“If it’s Welcome Week, we want everyone to feel welcome,” she said. “We don’t want anyone to come here and already feel like an outsider.”
She gathered a committee of bilingual and first-generation students and staff for input, and they recommended the “Bienvenidos á GCU” shirts for staff members and “Pregúntame” buttons, available for everyone who wants to identify as one who can help with questions in Spanish during Welcome Week.
It’s not only language that makes people feel welcome. It's also a sense of community, and the daily orientation for Latino parents and families could make it feel less isolating, she said.
It’s all part of getting off on the right foot, which is important.
Barriers to success in college can be high for first-generation students, especially those from Spanish-speaking families. Research shows that just over 50% of Latino college students complete their degrees, while it’s 70% for the white population, said Marette Hahn, Academic Support Director at ACE.
More than 20% of Latino students come from families at or below the poverty level, research shows, and many graduate from under-resourced high schools.
“If we want to stop the cycle of poverty and improve their quality of life, education is the way to do that,” Hahn said. "President Brian Mueller recently reminded us that education is the great equalizer, and I know GCU can make a huge difference in our community."
Members of the Spanish-speaking population also doesn’t typically have the social and cultural capital to know how to navigate barriers they might face in higher education, and they also don't want to stand out as a burden. For example, if they face a medical issue, Latino students might just quit instead of utilizing resources and assistance.
That’s where starting off with Welcome Week information for families is key to knowing what their student will face during the school year, such as the demands on their time to study versus helping the family.
And students may feel pressure as the first in college. They feel as if they can’t fail because “they are not just doing this for themselves but for their whole family,” Hahn said.
“So we want to make sure we have a Spanish-speaking orientation to tell them what they are going to experience and help them become comfortable with how they are going to navigate through college and be successful,” she added.
The Welcome Week message is that it’s OK to ask for help – we’re all in this together.
Norman said that more than 1 in 5 new students this year are first-generation, meaning they are the first in their immediate family to attend college. That led to another addition to Welcome Week, the First Gen Social on Thursday.
Those groups are less likely to join clubs and find networks of support and resources, research shows.
Norman encourages students to check out the Club Fair during Welcome Week to connect.
The majority of first-generation students are Latino, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and that’s why the Spanish-speaking volunteers are also key. As of early August, 28 volunteers had signed up, including Ernest Garza from Commerce City, Colorado.
Garza owns a cement company where 99% of his employees are Spanish speaking, he said. His son, Austin, graduated from GCU last year and daughter, Faith, is a junior this year, so in his time on the parent council at GCU he learned of the need.
At times, Latino family members don’t want to ask questions because it may make them feel inferior, he said.
“Interacting with some of the parents and learning how they feel having their first kids in college, they also don’t want to be left out,” he said. “Whether they are bilingual or not, this will make them feel special.”
Garza will be doing some of the orientation presentations in Spanish and be available to answer questions.
“They will have a sense that this school cared enough to open the door for Spanish-speaking people. I love that the school is taking that extra step,” he said. “It’s not like people were in an uproar demanding they do this. They are just doing it.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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