While the transition to university life can be overwhelming for many new college students, it can be especially daunting for students who are the first in their families to attend college. These first-generation students often feel underprepared and aren’t sure what to expect when they arrive on campus. With the global pandemic shifting higher education to a remote learning environment, many first-gen students find themselves feeling more confused and out of place than ever. 

In 2014, the First-Gen Faculty Initiative was spearheaded by Associate Professor of Chicano/Latino Studies and History Anita Casavantes Bradford to bring together first-gen faculty and find ways to assist first-gen students with the transition to life at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Over the past six years, the initiative has worked to recast professors and instructors as approachable role models who students can seek out for advice. The initiative also works to improve the visibility of the first-gen student experience and create a welcoming campus climate committed to diversity and inclusivity. Following the success of the First-Gen Faculty Initiative at UCI, the program has since been adopted across all 10 University of California campuses. 

Responding to the new remote learning environment, Professor Casavantes Bradford and Professor Pavan Kadandale (Associate Professor of Teaching in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and current faculty director of the First-Gen Faculty Initiative) have been working to adapt UCI’s First-Gen Faculty Initiative to help first-gen students overcome the challenges brought about by the pandemic. In collaboration with Student Success Initiatives and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Jonathan Alexander (also a first-gen faculty member), First Things First is a new “virtual” mentorship program that pairs two incoming UCI first-gen students with first-gen faculty members for a year-long, social-media-distributed conversation about the transition to university life. 


What To Expect

Each week, the freshmen students (selected through a competitive application process) will record a video responding to a prompt provided by their faculty mentors. The prompts will encourage them to share their unique impressions and insights on a range of topics related to their experiences as first-gen, first-year students. The faculty mentors will then respond with their own videos, offering advice, sharing strategies and reflecting on their similar experiences. The video dialogue aims to offer UCI’s first-gen student population access to real-world experiences and help them feel recognized, understood and encouraged as they confront the challenges of their new remote learning environment.

During Weeks Five and Ten, students will meet with their faculty mentors face-to-face via Zoom. These video calls will encourage more in-depth conversations between mentor and mentee. Through the process of creating both individual and collaborative videos, faculty and students will establish rapport, get to know each other and strengthen their connections. 

To preserve the personal aspect of the project, students will be encouraged to post the videos on their personal social media accounts. This approach allows for more genuine expression as well as widens the audience to include their full social networks. Amplifying the reach of the project will help UCI’s entire first-gen population, as well as first-gen students throughout higher education, build a sense of community—even in this remote college environment. 

First Things First videos will also be posted on the UCI First-Gen website and shared on official UCI accounts,  including the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (OVPTL) account and Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning and Dean of Undergraduate Education Michael Dennin’s accounts. 

According to Vice Provost Dennin, participating in the project is an exciting opportunity to empower students:

One of our core missions at UCI is to support first-gen students and help them to find success both as undergraduates and in their future endeavors. Through First Things First, we hope to offer a virtual platform for first-gen students to share their stories, celebrate their triumphs and inspire others with their resilience.”

Douglas M. Haynes, Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, sees the project as an excellent avenue for understanding the needs of UCI’s diverse student population and improving the university’s ability to offer support:

There are four key questions that should drive mentoring to advance inclusive excellence pedagogy: who are our students, are they thriving, how do we know and what can we do to improve. Each answer provides a vehicle for learning more about the hopes, ambitions and needs of UCI students while deepening our own capacity as educators, advisors and mentors to scaffold their success.”


Meet the Students

The First Things First project will kick off with videos from first-gen students Gretta Ozuna Rivera and Leon Masuda


Meet the Faculty Mentors

Acting as Gretta’s faculty mentor, Professor Casavantes Bradford is enthusiastic about her role in the project. She emphasizes the importance of using her position to make a difference in the lives of UCI’s student body:

Professor Kadandale is quick to second these sentiments. Serving as Leon’s faculty mentor for the year, he sees his participation in First Things First as part of UCI’s ongoing efforts towards rectifying deep-seated social inequalities:

First Things First launched Week Two of the 2020 Fall Quarter, with videos available on Vice Provost Dennin’s YouTube channel here and on the UCI First-Gen website here. You can also join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #FirstGenUCI.