UT celebrates first-generation students as it works to boost group’s grad rates

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Students in their families’ first generation to attend college face challenges that others don’t, and the University of Texas at Austin on Thursday celebrates the group’s success.

From noon to 3 p.m., first-generation students, faculty and staff will network and take part in a range of activities at the campus’ main building below the UT tower. The event is part of a week-long recognition of a group that represents 20% of the entire UT student population.

UT celebrates its first-generation students on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

“We want to make sure that they understand that they’re a big part of this community and that they belong here,” said Mike Gutierrez, senior program coordinator at Student Success Initiatives, an office created in 2013 to boost graduation rates and offer support to first-gen Longhorns.

The office is accomplishing that goal: First-generation student grad rates are up from 40.9% in 2012 to 61.5% last year, a 50% increase in just a few years.

Gutierrez, himself a first-generation UT grad, said the office’s success comes in part simply from recognizing that first-gen Longhorns often need a more robust support structure in school.

“My parents didn’t go to UT or to a college,” he said, “and I couldn’t ask them some of the questions that maybe other students could ask their parents about.”

‘We’ve earned a space here’

Lucky Nguyen’s experience starting at UT mirrored Gutierrez’s.

It was “kind of daunting at first,” he said. “There’s this whole system that you have to navigate kind of like on your own.”

The son of two Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen is in his family’s first generation to pursue higher education. He started considering it when he was in 8th or 9th grade in Houston, thanks to his school district’s early college prep classes.

Lucky Nguyen searches for videos he’s made for Austin PBS on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

“I knew I wanted to pursue storytelling” when it came time to apply, he explained, and that drew him to UT’s film school. The fact that it was close to his family helped.

A work-study program as a production intern for Austin PBS has helped him pay tuition, making short videos and documentaries for the public broadcaster’s digital channels.

The opportunity is also connecting him to his culture; a recent project he put together profiles Summitt Elementary School’s lion dance team, a traditional Vietnamese celebratory performance.

“It’s something that I’ve watched growing up a lot when I was a kid,” he said. “And so I was able to see this community in Austin keeping it alive.”

Nguyen knows his background and his experiences in college are different from his classmates’, but he tries not to dwell on them.

“Part of celebrating first-generation college students is to remind them of the hard work that we’ve done,” he said, “and to remind us that we’ve earned a space here.”

As he prepares to graduate in May, his advice to the next generation of first-generation students is to seek out a community on campus to stand in for the structure they might not have within their families.

‘Growing sense of community’

Gutierrez is working toward the same goal of creating an environment where every student can thrive, regardless of background.

The percentage of UT students who are their families’ first generation to attend college has remained fairly steady throughout the years, fluctuating between 19.3% and 28.8% since the university started tracking it in 2001. This year, 22.9% of the student population are first-generation students.

The graduation rate improvement for those students has outpaced the bump for the student body as a whole. Since 2012, the overall four-year graduation rate has risen 17.3 percentage points, ending at 69.8% last year. That’s just a few points above the rate for first-gen students.

“What I’ve seen in the last few years has been a really big sense of pride,” Gutierrez said, “you know, this growing sense of community for first-gen Longhorns.”

The week-long celebration, the second year the university has planned such an event, helps promote the community. Nguyen appreciates that UT is recognizing his accomplishments, as well as the support system he found that helped him get there.

“We have our family structures, but they may not understand what we do,” he said. “There are people on campus that will understand what you do.”

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