First Footsteps: Pitzer’s First-Generation College Students

Mayra Sandoval ’16, Associate Professor of Sociology Roberta Espinoza and Carlos Perrett ’18
Mayra Sandoval ’16, Associate Professor of Sociology Roberta Espinoza and Carlos Perrett ’18

One by one, students stood and introduced themselves: “I’m Carlos from Houston,” “I’m Jessica from Miami,” “I’m Sumesh from Nepal.” They had come to Pitzer College, to this get-together at the beginning of the academic year, from every corner of the map. Some flew across continents, others drove west on Interstate 10, but the distance they traveled to college is better measured in generations than in miles.

Carlos, Jessica, Sumesh and more than 100 of their Pitzer classmates are first-generation college students. At Pitzer, “first-gen” refers to students whose parents never earned a college degree, students who often walk through Pitzer’s Avery Gate without familial footsteps to follow or certain acronyms—SAT, ACT, FAFSA—encoded in their DNA.

In recent years, Pitzer College has expanded its outreach to low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students. Applications to the College from first-gen students have increased by 44 percent since 2013, and first-gens make up nearly 14 percent of the Class of 2018. The College launched Pitzer’s First-Generation Program this academic year.

“A lot of first-gen students face so many more hurdles than other students to get to Pitzer—culturally, socially, financially,” said former Vice President and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Angel Perez, a first-generation student himself and a champion of increasing access to higher education. “Just the fact that these students arrive on campus and are doing the coursework, they’re already beating the odds.”

As undergraduates, first-gen students continue to draw on those odds-beating talents and skills. One Pitzer first-gen who had never heard of office hours now goes so frequently he calls his chemistry professor his BFF; another who started out sitting silently in class ended up presenting papers at academic conferences. Pitzer Associate Professor of Sociology Roberta Espinoza, who was a first-gen student at Pomona College, failed a writing exam her first semester; now she’s the author of two books about how low-income, minority students can make their way to, and through, college.

Espinoza was one of the faculty members at the first-generation social hosted by Pitzer’s Office of Student Affairs and Office of the Dean of Faculty at the start of the year. That day in August, students
weren’t the only ones who stood and introduced themselves as first-gen students. Espinoza and other professors stood. Staff and college deans stood. Vice President for Student Affairs Brian Carlisle stood.

“We are standing here,” Carlisle said, “with our arms open, saying, ‘Come, visit with us, talk to us, ask us the questions you’re embarrassed to ask, because we went through the same thing.’ We’re creating a network of success here.”


Carlos Perrett ’18 grew up in Houston, TX,  the middle son of five children whose parents immigrated to the US from Mexico. Almost no one on his block had gone to college. He had never heard of Pitzer when the founder of EMERGE Fellowship, a nonprofit that helps underserved students go to top colleges, came to his high school to talk about access to higher education for low-income students. Perrett thought the whole idea sounded like a scam.

“There was no way I was going to a four-year, top-ranked school outside of Texas with almost a full ride,” he said. “No way.”

Way. Perrett had loved learning since he was a kid, and although his parents couldn’t vote when they arrived in this country, they taught him the notion of “service above self ” that led him to start his high school’s first political club. After EMERGE’s presentation, Perrett began spending hours every other Friday memorizing SAT vocabulary words and writing application essays at the nonprofit. That’s
where a program manager told him about Pitzer. By the time Perrett started applying to colleges, Pitzer was his first choice; Harvard University, his second.

Perrett was the first student to come to the College through the Pitzer Pathways Initiative, a program that works with more than 25 community-based organizations (CBOs) like EMERGE and Say Yes to Education to expand college access for low-income and first-generation students.

“Social responsibility is a Pitzer core value,” said Jamila Everett, interim vice president for admission and financial aid, who was also a first-generation college student. “It’s important for us to understand
the inequalities in our educational system and live our values by actively recruiting and enrolling students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Perrett applied early decision to Pitzer and got in. He never filled out that Harvard application. After spending his teenage years attending a high school practically in his backyard, he made the 1,500-mile
trek to college.

His first day on campus was like “stepping on a whole different planet,” he said.

Learning Curves

The obstacles many first-gens face don’t disappear when their college acceptance letter arrives.

Nationally, roughly three-fourths of first-year, first-gen students come from low-income families, according to USA Today. Those who went to underfunded schools may need to catch up academically; at the same time, they’re often juggling studies with part-time jobs. Many first-gen students also come from minority groups that are underrepresented on college campuses.

There’s something unique about the first-gen experience “regardless of race or class,” said Nicolas Rosa ’13, who founded a club for first-gen students at Pitzer.

“Having a family member who has already gone to college makes you view that place differently than being the first in your family or your community to ever set foot on a college campus,” Rosa said.

The sense of difference can come in matters great and small, from encountering an all-you-can-eat brunch at the dining hall, to not knowing if one needs a hall pass for a bathroom break, to getting the
first “D” in an otherwise stellar academic career.

“Expectations were much higher at Pitzer than at my high school,” said Rosa. “It was a big learning curve.”

Rosa is now a program coordinator for Meritus Fund, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged youth in San Francisco earn an undergraduate degree. He says first-gen students’ struggles in the classroom can also
stem from off-campus concerns.

Khalil Johnson ’17, who grew up in a low-income neighborhood in west Philadelphia, borrowed SAT prep books because he didn’t want to ask his parents to pay for them. As the oldest and the “college boy”
in his family, Johnson worries about more than his grades. He worries about financial aid deadlines and other logistics he and his parents haven’t navigated before; he worries about his mother, who has lupus;
he worries about his siblings.

“You’re always concerned about home,” he said.

These challenges can be daunting, but first-gens are not easily deterred. After talking with his father about global warming, Johnson started a task force to tackle climate change; he was in the sixth grade.

When he began applying to colleges, he met face-to-face with as many admission counselors as possible. After a Pitzer counselor held an information session at his high school, Johnson said he emailed her “so my name would be on her mind: Khalil, Khalil, Khalil.”

It worked. When his mom handed him a bright orange envelope with “congratulations” written all over it and Pitzer’s acceptance letter inside it, “I felt like one in a million,” he said.

The College Compass

Pitzer College’s new First-Generation Program, born out of a collaboration between the offices of Student Affairs and the Dean of Faculty, is designed to help first-gen students both feel at home on campus and acclimate to college’s academic demands—two factors that can influence each other.

A Stanford University study found that incoming first-gen students who talked about socio-economic issues with their classmates had higher grades and an easier time adjusting to campus life than their peers
who didn’t participate in such discussions.

Pitzer’s First-Generation Program is overseen by Resident Director Annie Greaney and Linda Lam, the coordinator of the College’s Center for Asian Pacific American Students—both first-gens themselves. This past fall, first-gen workshops included a study-skills session with Associate Dean of Faculty Katie Purvis-Roberts and Professor of Philosophy Brian Keeley. Greaney and Lam also teamed up with students and Professor Espinoza to host social events for first-gens.

During one of those events in December, students decorated gingerbread houses at Espinoza’s oncampus apartment and discussed various meanings of home: being away from home, going home for the
holidays and creating a new home at college.

The College also aims to reduce the financial burden of getting a degree, pledging to meet 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated need. During Pitzer President Laura Skandera Trombley’s tenure, the Board of Trustees created a scholarship for first-generation students in Trombley’s name.

The president also established the John Skandera Memorial Endowed Scholarship for firstgens in honor of her father.

“My father was an orphan and firstgeneration college graduate who went on to earn his master’s degree and become an elementary school teacher. He believed everyone deserves a chance to
get a great education,” Trombley said. “At Pitzer, we want first-generation students to know they belong here, and that their talents and tenacity make them some of the most remarkable members of our community.”

Settling in, Standing out

First-gen students at Pitzer describe pivotal moments not only on their path to college, but after they’ve made it to the Mounds. Mayra Sandoval ’16 says she stopped feeling like a stranger in a strange land after talking with Professor Espinoza during office hours.

Sandoval grew up in Los Angeles, raised by a single mother who immigrated to California from Mexico and supported her three daughters on a factory worker’s wages. Sandoval got into top universities, including University of California, Berkeley, but her mentor at a community-based organization called Heart of Los Angeles encouraged Sandoval to look at The Claremont Colleges.

“She knew I was a first-generation college student and that a lot of first-gens don’t want to be far from home,” Sandoval said.

When she took Espinoza’s introductory sociology course her first year, Sandoval was scholastically shy, sitting in the back row, rarely raising her hand. She never went to office hours until Espinoza
asked everyone in class to meet with her one-on-one. During office hours, Sandoval found out that her sociology professor was also a first-generation college student from a Latino, low-income, singleparent

“Finding faculty who share with us that they’re first-generation students helps build a support group, and that is something firstgeneration students really need to succeed,” Sandoval said. “It’s important for professors to understand the struggles of first-gen students.”

Her sophomore year, Sandoval became Espinoza’s research assistant; today, they work together on a grant-funded project that examines how nonprofits create paths to college for low-income and minority youth. A sociology major, Sandoval hopes to start an organization like the one that helped her discover Pitzer College.

She also plans to go to grad school—a future she couldn’t have imagined just a couple of years ago.

“Roberta is the first person who really encouraged me to pursue a PhD,” Sandoval said.

Alumnus Nicolas Rosa can reel off a number of mentors he had at Pitzer, but says he began to feel like he truly belonged on campus when he became a resident assistant and created a club for first-gens.

“Once I was able to see that I could not just attend Pitzer, but be a leader at Pitzer, that’s when I started to feel at home,” he said. “That’s when I realized I could succeed there just as much as everyone else.”
All Roads

First-gens who didn’t have footsteps to follow to Pitzer are already helping clear a path for others. They inspire, instruct and cajole their siblings, cousins and even neighbors about pursuing their educational dreams.

After Sandoval enrolled at Pitzer, her older sister started attending community college. Her younger sister, now in high school, receives a stream of unsolicited advice: take AP classes, do extra-curricular activities, get to know your counselors. “Everything I’ve learned, I’ve passed on to her,” Sandoval said.

Khalil Johnson encourages his younger siblings to “study, study, study,” and one of his brothers is now in college. “If I can finish college and go to graduate school and make something of myself,
then everyone who’s younger than I am will be encouraged to go to school and stick with it,” Johnson said.

Carlos Perrett is now an operations assistant with the Office of Admission and gives campus tours to prospective students. He sends postcards with photos from campus to high school students in Houston so they can picture themselves at college. “I’m setting a path not only for my sisters, but for my entire neighborhood,” he said.

Sitting at a table in the Scott Hall courtyard, Perrett said Pitzer no longer feels like another planet. He and his fellow first-gens want everyone to know that it doesn’t take light years to travel a
generation to college.

Download PDF