UC Davis Faculty Share Own Stories to Mentor First-Generation Students

Professor speaks to incoming students at summer orientation
Carolyn Thomas, dean and vice provost of Undergraduate Education at UC Davis, speaks to incoming students at summer orientation about her journey as a first-generation college graduate. (Elena Zhukova/UC)

Sons and daughters of parents who never went to or completed college will be in the classrooms and lecture halls when instruction starts this week at the University of California, Davis. And some of them will be at the front of the class — professors and lecturers sporting T-shirts that identify them as first-generation college graduates. 

Nearly 400 UC Davis faculty are sharing their stories to offer encouragement and help to the 40 percent of undergraduates who would be in the first generation of their families to earn four-year university degrees.

“Many of us had people who helped us on our journey, and we’re doing that now through mentorship to students,” said Carolyn Thomas, vice provost and dean for Undergraduate Education and professor of American studies.

Connecting students with mentors

The First-Generation Faculty Initiative at UC Davis is part of a UC systemwide effort to connect first-generation students with faculty mentors who have walked in their shoes and to provide resources to help the students continue to succeed.

The T-shirts and the personal stories and directory on the initiative’s website invite students to contact faculty who grew up the children of fishermen, factory workers, single parents and immigrants.

From every college and professional school on the campus, they show they understand the challenges many first-generation students face: pioneering their way through college, surmounting financial circumstances, or navigating expectations about their choice of major.

You belong here

Recounting his own experience, economics professor Alan M. Taylor said he wants first-generation students to know they have earned their way into UC Davis and belong here.

Alan Taylor
UC Davis economics professor Alan M. Taylor was raised in a coal-mining village in Northern England. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

From a coal-mining village in Northern England, he was raised by working-class parents who taught him to value education. And during his undergraduate studies at Cambridge University, a conversation with a mathematics professor helped Taylor cement his belief in himself.

“Here is one of the smartest logicians in the world, and who am I to be sitting here talking to him?” Taylor said. “But he made you feel like you belong. It didn’t matter where you were from. His view was that you were admitted and you earned it, and now we’re going to get on with it.”

Today, Taylor is one of the most respected international macroeconomists in the world and has advised the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, governments and central banks.

“Don’t keep looking back,” he tells students. “Look over the horizon — that world is yours. Have a go.”

Experiences that change lives

Expanding Support for Students

The Educational Opportunity Program on campus is expanding support for first-generation students through its 1st of Many educational advocacy initiative.

  • A new four-year program will support the retention of first-generation students through activities that promote community, identity development and civic engagement. About 20 participants will be selected this fall.
  • As part of the larger First-Year Aggie Connections, seven groups will focus on helping first-generation participants navigate their first year. The groups of up to 25 will help students connect with campus resources, become familiar with campus culture and traditions, explore academic and other interests, and build social connections.
  • 1st Gen to Graduate is a workshop series to help seniors develop professional skills and explore post-graduate life as a first-generation student.
  • EOP will offer 1st of Many T-shirts at its fall welcome from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. today (Sept. 25) in 1100 Social Science and Humanities Building.

Thomas, the dean and provost who is a first-generation college graduate, said she and other faculty are passionate that first-generation students also have the opportunities of higher education that change lives — like research, internships and study abroad. “You may know you should go to college, and you may have family support to be in college,” Thomas said, “but where you should go and what you should do once you get there, that’s a mystery.”

For Thomas, study abroad in Germany lead to a new hunger for learning, a new major and finding professors who invested in her.

“We pay it forward. Just as our students will do for the “firsts” of tomorrow,” she added. “That’s how we change the world, a student at a time.”

Teaching resources

The initiative is also creating community among first-generation faculty and providing resources for teaching first-generation students. The initiative is holding its second symposium on Oct. 17. “Knowing and Supporting Our First Gen Students” will feature a panel discussion with first-generation students, a presentation of current data about first-generation students, and the opportunity for networking and dialogue.

First-generation faculty who are listed in the initiative’s directory will be invited; those who have not yet signed up can register online. All faculty can find resources for supporting first-generation students on the initiative’s website.

Media Resources

Primary Category

Secondary Categories

Student Life