Discovering Hidden Gems

Discovering Hidden Gems

In July 2016 Manuela (Manuela Gabriel, Ph.D., ALAS assistant project director) and I arrived in Fresno to work at Fresno Pacific University in the newly created ALAS Title V Program. After living and working in different countries, we landed for the very first time on the West Coast, and honestly, we came without knowing what to expect.

We began working right away with first-generation college students—students whose parents have not earned a four-year degree. At FPU we work with a very diverse and heterogenic group of students that at first sight showed numerous learning difficulties: poor academic skills, financial problems, diverse cultural backgrounds, difficulties integrating into FPU and navigating the higher education system, lack of self-esteem and sometimes lack of family support.

Immediately, we realized this type of student is more common than we thought, particularly in the Central Valley. Statistics show high rates of poverty and social inequality in Fresno, and one of the lowest college graduation rates in the country: nearly 80% of the people who live here don’t have a bachelor’s degree. Nationally, out of the seven million undergraduates attending four-year public and private colleges and universities, about 20% are first-generation students—at FPU 47% are first-generation students. About 50% of all first-generation college students in the U.S. are, and are also more likely to be, a member of a racial or ethnic minority group (Linda Banks-Santilli, 2015).

Yes, definitely, it is a challenging context, but a place of hope as well. While we encountered students with a variety of complex challenges, we also encountered a group of young undergraduates with great courage, enormous goodwill and strong determination. They are thirsty to learn, confident to overcome obstacles and prepared to make sacrifices. It took us time to realize that they are hidden gems ready to be discovered. Working in the ALAS Intercultural Learning Center gave us the possibility to interact on a daily basis with these students and we have learned to recognize and understand their concerns, fears and limitations. We have also learned to appreciate and value their dreams and their determination to pursue them.

As time goes by, we realized these students understand why they are here. They recognize college provides a pathway to explore themselves and their personal and spiritual interests, expand their social and cultural experiences and build a more promising career. They know higher education can improve career opportunities and gain economic prosperity and social mobility. Our students understand the journey is tough, and they are willing to go through it. There is nothing they want more than to make their families proud, seek a better future, become full members of this society and serve their communities. They are simply asking, sometimes desperately, for an opportunity and for someone who believes in them. These hidden gems are right here around us. Multiple people and resources contribute to the success of those students in the context of FPU, but unfortunately, many of them still fail. Some of the latest changes in the higher education systems are helping, but it is not enough. These gems need a space that is ready to serve them, and we, as a higher education institution, need to show a strong commitment to them.

Three years after arriving in Fresno, we are proud to serve at FPU, and, particularly, in the ALAS program, where a beloved group of people tries hard to support first-generation students in their pursuit of education. ALAS has served 224 undergraduate students in four years, and it has had a tremendous impact in the persistence and retention of those first-generation students by providing academic support; offering career advice; explaining how to navigate the college system; teaching academic, professional and intercultural skills and competences; encouraging diversity and inclusion on campus; and developing a feeling of belonging to FPU through the use of the ALAS Intercultural Learning Center. We are privileged witnesses of many personal and familiar stories of overcoming.

The demographic landscape of California and the Central Valley has changed in the last few decades, and more first-generation students and minorities will be attending Fresno Pacific University in the near future. We need to be prepared to serve the diverse needs of our students, develop their gifts and help them to find their true destiny. These hidden gems deserve a chance to shine.

Connections
Francisco Del Canto Viterale, Ph.D.

Francisco Del Canto Viterale, Ph.D.

Project Coordinator—ALAS Title V Program