First Things First Named CASE 2022 Best of District VII Award Winner

We at the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (OVPTL) are happy to announce that our submission for First Things First: Video Mentorship Project for First-Year, First-Gen Students has been selected as a CASE 2022 Best of CASE District VII Award Winner! First Things First, a collaborative effort between the OVPTL and the UCI First-Generation Faculty Initiative (FGFI), was one of the winning submissions in the category “Communications: COVID Campaigns/Initiatives.” 

About the Award

CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) is a global nonprofit association that champions education to transform lives and society. CASE strives to advance higher education by inspiring professionals to support the success of their institutions in new and innovative ways.

CASE presents several awards throughout the year to celebrate the individuals, organizations, and initiatives that demonstrate excellence in education advancement. CASE District Awards recognize hundreds of institutions across the U.S. for their superior accomplishments, lasting impact, and exceptional results. CASE District VII represents the western region of the U.S., including Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Nevada, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Utah. 

The 2022 CASE Best of District VII Awards celebrate winning entries across a broad array of categories, including writing, communications, design, and much more. First Things First received the Best of District VII Award for “Communications: COVID Campaigns/Initiatives,” which recognizes multi-channel communications campaigns that sway hearts, minds, and attitudes and/or build awareness around any aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Entries in this category were evaluated on the following criteria:

  • Ability to serve as a model for other institutions 
  • Overall concept and creativity
  • Impact and results 
  • Strategy and methodology 
  • Use of resources (budget, staff, and time) and return on investment
  • Quality and clarity of nomination and supporting materials 
  • Special circumstances/overcoming adversity

About First Things First

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. First-generation (first-gen) students often feel underprepared and aren’t sure what to expect when they arrive on campus. In Fall 2020, when UCI transitioned to a fully-remote environment, many faculty and staff expressed particular concern for the first-gen students who were now being forced to acclimate to university life in an online setting. To support this student population, the OVPTL partnered with the FGFI to launch First Things First

First Things First was a virtual mentorship program that ran during the 2020-21 academic year. The program paired two incoming first-gen students with first-gen faculty members for a year-long video exchange focused on the transition to university life. First Things First was spearheaded by a group of first-gen faculty members, including Jonathan Alexander (Director of UCI’s Humanities Core Program, Chancellor’s Professor of English & Informatics, and former Associate Dean of the Division of Undergraduate Education), Anita Casavantes Bradford (Associate Dean of the UCI School of Social Sciences, Professor of Chicano/Latino Studies and History, and founder of the FGFI), and Pavan Kadandale (Associate Professor of Teaching in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and former Faculty Director of the FGFI).

“The First Things First project grew out of our desire to find new ways of supporting and accompanying first-generation students entering UCI during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.” explains Professor Casavantes Bradford. She continues:

“The new virtual learning environment, coupled with the extraordinary strains the pandemic placed on first-gen students (especially those from low income and minoritized communities), meant that our students would need us more than ever—but figuring out how to be there for them required us to think outside the box. We came up with First Things First to serve as a medium for faculty to engage with individual students as well as with the broader first-gen student body. The First Things First project was, in my opinion, an example of some of the many strengths that first-gen faculty and students possess—including their adaptability, resilience, resourcefulness, and innovative ways of responding to adversity and resource scarcity—and the ways that these strengths help make the University a better place.”

The First Things First project saw Professors Casavantes Bradford and Kadandale acting as faculty mentors for students Gretta Ozuna Rivera and Leon Masuda. For the entire 2020-21 academic year, the students recorded weekly videos where they responded to prompts provided by their first-gen faculty mentors. The prompts encouraged the students to share their unique insights on a range of topics related to their experiences as first-year first-gen students. Professors Casavantes Bradford and Kadandale then responded with their own videos, offering advice, sharing strategies, and reflecting on their similar experiences. 

One thing that made First Things First unique was the idea of turning mentorship into shareable content. Traditionally, mentorship is a one-on-one experience that benefits the individual mentors and mentees. However, through this project, the faculty mentors were able to reach an entire audience and offer valuable advice and support. This project was also distinctive in its ability to foster meaningful connections. While the First Things First students and mentors could not meet in person due to the pandemic, the innovative use of video enabled them to engage in shared dialogues and establish supportive relationships. Viewers also connected with the First Things First participants as they followed their journey throughout the year. With the students and mentors sharing personal stories, challenges, and goals, viewers got to know the individuals on their screen and relate to their experiences. In a time when connections were hard to come by, First Things First helped viewers feel less alone.

This ability to bring people together was one of the projects’ biggest accomplishments. “I am most proud of the unique and innovative way that this project connected faculty to students, especially during the pandemic lockdown when many students were feeling particularly isolated,” says Professor Alexander. “And this was true not only for the students who participated, but for any student who saw the video exchanges between the faculty members and their mentees.”

Another distinctive aspect about the First Things First project was its in-depth exploration of the first-gen student experience. Through open discussions centered around questions such as “why did you choose to pursue a college education,” “what challenges are you facing and what strategies have you used to address these difficulties,” and “has being a college student changed your relationship with your family or community,” First Things First offered a candid look at what it means to be the first in one’s family to attend college. For the first-gen student community, this project offered a welcoming platform where they could feel connected, recognized, understood, and encouraged as they confronted the challenges of adapting to college life in a remote setting. For the wider UCI student body, it offered insight into what is at stake for many first-gen students, their families, and their communities and provided a fresh perspective on some of their personal circumstances they may have taken for granted. 

Award Recognition and Response

For everyone involved with First Things First, the project represented UCI’s commitment to serving the first-gen student community. “The project sends the strongest possible signal that we as a campus are deeply invested in the lives and challenges facing our first-gen students,” explains Professor Alexander. “It shows that we wish to approach them as adults who are not only seeking mentorship but who are bringing many diverse and exceptional talents and experiences to the university.”

Professor Alexander adds that the success of the project is largely due to the guidance and consideration that Professors Casavantes Bradford and Kadandale demonstrated as faculty mentors. “Both Anita and Pavan were superb, connecting their experiences to those of the students while also holding space for the students to think and talk about what was important to them. I couldn’t be more proud to have been a small part of getting this project off the ground.”

For Professor Kadandale, First Things First’s recognition at the 2022 CASE Best of District VII Awards is a testament to the teamwork, innovative thinking, and courage that made the project possible:

“This award recognizes the creativity of the entire team in coming up with a wonderful solution to an incredibly difficult problem. The dedication that everyone had to helping our first-gen students was amazing, and I am humbled and honored to have been part of this wonderful team. I would like to thank the entire team that made First Things First possible, especially our dynamic duo of incredible students, Leon and Gretta, from whom I learned so much. They inspired me with their resilience, optimism, and desire to help other first-gen students, despite starting their academic careers during a global pandemic.”

Finally, Professor Casavantes Bradford also dedicates the award to the First Things First student participants and thanks them for their their strength in the face of adversity: 

“I want to thank Gretta and Leon, who despite beginning their UCI education at an extraordinarily difficult time, inspired me time and time again with their positivity, patience, and determination to pursue their dreams of becoming the first in their families to earn a university degree—not just for their own good, but also as a way of helping their families and their communities.”

2022 CASE Best of District VII Award recipients will be honored at the District VII Annual Conference in San Francisco on March 19-23, 2023. To learn more about First things First, visit the UCI First-Generation website. To learn more about the OVPTL’s other winning submission for Dennin Insights, check out the announcement article here. Finally, for more information on the 2022 CASE Best of DIstrict VII Awards, visit the winners’ gallery here