UC Santa Cruz to launch first generation faculty campaign

Tuesday, May 30, 2017
Matthew Renda

Universities are driven by metrics. They obsessively track graduation and retention rates and the number of graduates who secure employment within their field of study.

But public institutions are increasingly focused on another key metric — the degree to which they enable upward mobility.

For many professors, administrators, and outside commentators, it is vital that U.S. higher education afford people from lower income households, and from traditionally underrepresented ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, equitable educational opportunities.

“It is one of the most important things that the United States should be doing in the twenty-first century,” said  interim Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, Martin Berger, “In order to unlock the full potential of the country you need to do more than educate the same elite population generation after generation. Doing so limits our ability to innovate and problem solve. The more heterogeneous our approach, the more creative our solutions.”

With this vital mission in mind, the University of California, Santa Cruz will launch the First-Gen Faculty (FGF) campaign during Student Achievement week, the week of June 5. This initiative is aimed at encouraging professors on campus to identify themselves as first generation — the first in their families to graduate from a U.S. four-year college or university.

So far, 54 professors have identified themselves as first-generation faculty, and 41 faculty have signed on as supporters.

Berger is in the latter group, but Rebecca Covarrubias, faculty in psychology and a prime mover behind the campaign, knows firsthand the trials and triumphs of being a first-generation student.

Covarrubias’ childhood in a lower income, primarily Mexican American community in Phoenix meant that when she finally reached the University of Arizona, she was bringing along her family and her community. Yet, a firm sense of belonging proved elusive once on campus.

“Not only did I miss my family, but I also wasn’t prepared for college,” she said. “I didn’t use office hours or talk to professors because I didn’t think I had to.”

These strategies — seeking out faculty, forming study groups, attending office hours — are key to student success, but activities that some first generation students may only learn about once on campus. “There are many hidden rules about how to navigate the university,” Covarrubias said.  “We have great programs and people on campus who work hard to unpack these rules for students. But, if we are really going to serve students, the institution, as a whole, needs to be responsible for bringing resources to students.”

That’s why the t-shirt campaign, where first generation faculty and supporters will don the same distinctive shirts and buttons, is so important.

“It’s about raising awareness of the large number of first generation students on our campus, and also about raising visibility of an often invisible group,” Covarrubias said. “You don’t always know who the first generation students are in your classroom. In drawing attention to the shared identities among students and faculty, we can send a clear message that we want you here, that you belong here, and you will succeed here.”

The psychology professor says she is further convinced that young students who see people belonging to their same cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds occupying a position like university professor helps instill a sense of possibility central to successful careers in higher education.

Jaye Padgett, Interim Vice Provost for the Division of Student Success, agrees.

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