Steve Zylius / UCI
“By the time I was 8, I had figured out we were poor,” says Anita Casavantes Bradford, a UCI associate professor of Chicano/Latino studies. A monthly ritual brought it home for her.
Hot Dog Day was a big treat at her Vancouver, Canada, elementary school. She longed for the multiple hot dogs and other goodies. Instead, “my mom got a scared and sad look on her face when she would sit down to pencil out the calculations for one hot dog and one milk. No doughnut,” Casavantes Bradford recalls. “It was always a time of anxiety and sadness.”
That same year, she won the annual scholastic medal, awarded to the child with the best academic performance. “I had a very kind third-grade teacher who made me feel special,” she says.
Casavantes Bradford did her own math and realized right then that education was the way out of hunger and poverty. “If I didn’t want to be poor and afraid, I needed to be good at school,” she says.
She decided to be the first in her family to earn a high school diploma and a college degree. It was no easy journey. As a community college student, Casavantes Braford worked full time as a live-in housekeeper and nanny. As a first-generation student, she had no family members to turn to for advice on how to navigate classes, finances and extracurricular activities. She felt isolated and perpetually exhausted.
Casavantes Bradford made friends outside school, and a Latin American studies professor urged her on, telling her she should go all the way to graduate school. “I didn’t really take him seriously,” she says. “I didn’t think people like me got to go to graduate school.”
But she persevered, transferring to a prestigious four-year university and earning a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate. Casavantes Bradford was a high school teacher by age 23 and loved it. She became engaged to a U.S. Marine and, to her surprise, was accepted as a doctoral student at UC San Diego. She’s been at UCI since 2011.
Asked if she sees young people in her classes that remind her of herself as an undergraduate, Casavantes Bradford replies, “Every day.” When she began teaching, she noticed that first-generation students in particular weren’t taking advantage of her office hours. She knew faculty advisers were critical to student success. Now she makes a point of telling each new class that she was a first-generation student. There are lines outside her door.
More than half of UCI’s current student body are first-generation students, and Casavantes Bradford and others want to ease what can be a daunting experience. She started a popular faculty mentoring initiative two years ago. Last year, she and co-director Davin Phoenix, an assistant professor of political science, worked with a dozen first-generation upperclassmen, developing a peer-to-peer mentoring program that kicks off this fall.
“What I love about this program is that it not only helps new students, but also gives our upper-level first-generation students an opportunity to be recognized as experts,” Casavantes Bradford says. “Not just as survivors, but as thrivers, as sources of knowledge.”