FSW Focuses on Empowering First-Generation College Students

“Please, don’t get married so young.” 

They were the last words Lindsy Orozco-Diaz's grandfather said to her during her family’s final visit with her grandparents in Mexico in 2018. 

Blas Orozco knew his granddaughter had big dreams and goals to reach. He didn’t want her to continue the same cycle that had repeated in their family generation after generation. 

“I won’t,” Orozco-Diaz promised him. I’m going to be a doctor.” 

The First-Generation Challenge 

College is complicated. 

Bursar. Registrar. FAFSA. Prerequisites. Credit hours. The jargon alone is difficult to understand. Then add in admission requirements, enrollment processes, and financial aid forms, and applying to college can be overwhelming to anybody. 

For many new college students, the previous college experience of their family members is enough to provide a starting point, but for first-generation college students, students whose parents have not completed a bachelor’s degree, the lack of familial college knowledge creates an even greater barrier to earning their degrees. 

Orozco-Diaz is a first-generation college student. Her dad, Tomas, briefly went to college in Mexico. His parents could afford the tuition, but nothing else. Tomas didn’t have money to eat, and eventually, he dropped out to work as a rancher with Blas. 

Her older half-brothers also briefly attended college, but they too had to drop out to help support their mother after the loss of their father. 

While Orozco-Diaz's parents supported her going to college, both financially and emotionally, they couldn’t help her through the application process. 

My parents had set up college funds for us, and they were very proud that I wanted to go to college, but they didn’t understand the process,” she said. “They are Spanish speakers, and the educational system after high school in the United States is very different from the educational system in Mexico. They didn’t know that to go to college in the U.S. you have to apply and be accepted. They didn’t know that different colleges offer different educational programs.” 

Orozco-Diaz was on her own in understanding and applying to colleges. She searched YouTube videos, asked her friends for advice, and called the colleges she was interested in to ask for their guidance. Her high school guidance counselor helped her apply for scholarships, and she spent hours researching and creating individual binders for each college she was applying to with everything they needed for her application. 

“It looked like I knew what I was doing, even though I didn’t, and my parents would ask why I was doing all of this work just to get into college, Orozco-Diaz said. “The experience was difficult, but it helped make me more independent.” Z

Creating Solutions 

Orozco-Diaz's experience as a first-generation college student is just one of thousands at Florida SouthWestern State College (FSW) and at colleges across the United States. 

“If you don’t grow up in a household that typically talks about college as an experience or an option, you’re not going to have the knowledge or the accessibility to get a college degree,” said Dr. Michelle Yovanovich, vice provost, FSW Student Affairs. “First-gen families often don’t understand the commitment it takes to go to college.” 

With more than 50 percent of FSW’s students identifying as first-generation, the college recognized the need to better guide these students through their experience. 

Catherine Cordova, associate director, New Student Programming, and Mayo Coates, student success advisor, lead FSW’s First-Gen Committee. The committee was created to research and build ways FSW could help transition and get first-generation students up to speed quickly.  

One of its major goals was to tackle resource literacy.  

“Higher ed is very jargony,” said Cordova. “First-generation college students often don't have the resource literacy or understand the language used on college campuses. They’re also not familiar with the support resources that are available to them.” 

In response, the committee created a more in-depth orientation and onboarding process for new students, which included more explanation of common college terms, like registrar and bursar, and provided additional focus on learning resources and academic support. 

The committee also partnered with Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) and Hodges University to create a First-Generation Celebration event. The virtual event featured panels of guest speakers including college alumni, faculty and staff who were first-generation students themselves. They shared their experiences and offered guidance on who to turn to for help. 

“Role models are important,” said Coates. Seeing ourselves in someone else empowers us, and when college officials can demystify the information, it makes the process more accessible and easier to understand.” 

FSW’s faculty is also encouraged to recognize the unique needs first-generation students may have compared to non-first-generation students. 

“The work needs to be widespread throughout the whole college, so not only are we supporting students outside of the classroom but so that it’s understood that their experience inside the classroom is also critical,” said Dr. Yovanovich. “Faculty need to have sensitivity and the knowledge that this type of learning environment is a brand-new experience for these students.” 

The college is also piloting a student success program called FSW Anchors. The program is designed to improve the retention and graduation rates of students from first-generation, limited-income, and historically-underrepresented populations by providing mentoring, workshops, and regular communications to students.  

“The first semester is often the most difficult for first-generation students,” Dr. Yovanovich said. “Once they get through the initial learning curve, they are right on par with non-first-generation students.” 

Through its increased focus on first-generation students, FSW has been recognized as a First-Gen Forward Institution by the Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA and the Suder Foundation. 

“We empower first-generation college students,” said Cordova. “They may come to us with lower rates of college readiness, but they are also persistent, independent, motivated, and have higher self-efficacy.” 

Promises Kept 

Back in Naples, Fla., as the COVID-19 pandemic raged around her, Orozco-Diaz powered through her prerequisite classes. After a difficult week of anatomy and chemistry exams, something felt off. That’s when her dad gave her the heartbreaking news – her grandfather had passed away. 

Orozco-Diaz is keeping the promise she made to her grandfather on their final day together. After completing her prerequisites with the required GPA, she was accepted into FSW’s Associate in Science degree in Cardiovascular Technology program. She will complete her A.S. degree in 2023, and she plans to continue on to a bachelor’s degree in Cardiopulmonary Sciences at FSW. 

“My parents tell me they’re proud of me all the time, and I know my grandfather is too,” Orozco-Diaz said. I carry him with me in everything I do.”