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A Helping Hand
The Community College of Denver reaches out to first-generation students

By Kay Mills
Denver, Colorado

Before entering the Community College of Denver, Jacob Garcia wasn't much interested in school. Now he is. The reason is the school's program that helps first-generation college students succeed by combining the efforts of case managers, counselors, tutors, classroom instructors and fellow students. "People e-mail you to let you know about things," Garcia said. "Teachers support you. Before, I didn't want to go to school. Now that I'm here, I don't want not to go."

Garcia, 22, had dropped out of high school, worked for a supermarket, cut hair for awhile and eventually earned a high school equivalency diploma. Now that he has custody of his five-year-old daughter, Garcia "has to think of her future," he said. "My mom freaks out, seeing me do homework, because I never did before. She doesn't think I'll finish because so often I've not finished before. I want to prove to her she's wrong. I also want to be a good dad that my daughter sees doing something positive."

His story is not unique. First-generation students make up about 65 percent of the 13,529 students at this community college, which shares a downtown Denver campus with Metropolitan State College and the University of Colorado-Denver. Although not all first-generation college goers need or want to participate in this program, support services are available to all.

In 2002-03, the retention rate for students in the first-generation programs was a remarkably high 84 percent, an achievement that drew praise from Frank Newman, who heads the Futures Project at Brown University.

"What Denver has done that is more effective than others is reaching out to these students," Newman said. "Information is key. Remedial education is key. Financial aid is key. And very often for many of these students, child care is key."

The Community College of Denver program is eight years old. Students who sign up receive help filling out financial aid applications, registering for classes, and finding tutors if needed, plus other academic and emotional support. Since these students are the first in their families to attend college, their parents or spouses may not understand the complicated forms, the deadlines, the need for time to study, free of distractions.

   (Photo By Eric Lars Bakke, Black Star, For CrossTalk)
Virginia Jimenez, a graduate of the Community College of Denver, now serves as a "student ambassador" in the first-generation student program.

"Many families don't believe it is financially possible" for their children to go to college, said CCD president Christine Johnson. Their children help support their families and the families need the money. "When you don't have food or might get evicted, the rent takes priority over college tuition," she said, adding that newer immigrants might feel insecure about college. "There's a confidence barrier," a lack of tradition, Johnson said. "You don't just give them a financial aid form-you help them fill it out. We have to demystify all this paperwork." There's a lot of handholding, she said, "but we call it purposeful handholding."

Each entering student is tested for placement in English and mathematics courses. Remedial work is mandatory for those students who need it, and some students must take four developmental math courses to get to the level they need for their degree.

Virginia Jimenez, 51, who serves now as a "student ambassador," working with about 35 first-generation community college students, tells them, "I understand the problems with taking the math." When Jimenez began classes at the college in 1997, she had just been laid off as a community worker because of state budget cuts. She had not taken math since ninth grade, and the prospect of getting up to speed was daunting. Jimenez did it-with the help of this program-and completed an associate's degree. Now she is working toward a bachelor's degree at neighboring Metropolitan State.

"We have to start at the bottom. Our high schools didn't prepare us," Jimenez said. "So many students are really embarrassed at having to start with fractions. They don't want to do it. But I tell them that's exactly where I started. It's so stressful." But the college's instructors are very helpful, she said, adding that without them, "I would have given up a long time ago."

(Photo By Eric Lars Bakke, Black Star, For CrossTalk)   
Peggy Valdez-Fergason (center), a first-generation college student herself, now runs the Access and Success Project at the Community College of Denver.

This support from students like Jimenez who have made it through the community college is a key element in the school's work with newer students, according to Peggy Valdez-Fergason, director of the Access and Success Project, which the first-generation student program is called. Valdez-Fergason, who once was a first-generation student herself, said, "When students go to the orientation program, they see people who look like them. They can motivate them in a way that I can't because they are students, too.

"First-generation students tend to go to college near their homes," Valdez-Fergason said. Students at the community college have the advantage of familiarity with the campus they share with the four-year schools, so transferring to one of them isn't as intimidating as it might otherwise be, she added.

The program began in 1995 with a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education under Title III of the 1965 Higher Education Act, aimed at strengthening colleges serving a high percentage of Hispanic students. Byron McClenney, who was the college's president then and later headed Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, said that it was one of a set of initiatives to reach the poorest people of Denver, disproportionately Hispanics and African Americans (CCD's current student population is 33 percent Hispanic and 17 percent African American).

A school must not only seek out minority students, McClenney said, "but also must figure out how you ensure once you've got them in the front door that they have a chance for success." Students must be engaged so that they feel part of a family, so that they feel comfortable, he added.

Toward that end, said Valdez-Fergason, the college not only hired the case managers and developed the "student ambassador" aspect of the program, it also set up what are called "learning communities." These are, in effect, two courses in one-and credit is given for two courses-as two instructors teach their subjects together. All first-generation students in the program are required to take at least one learning community class. In these smaller settings, students have a chance to get to know their classmates and instructors, while receiving the help they need to succeed academically, Valdez-Fergason said.

David Flores and Jose Puertas teach one of these linked learning community courses, combining advanced academic achievement with introduction to computers. Flores' part of the course covers self-awareness, the importance of diversity, goal setting, time management, critical thinking and note-taking. As a final examination, each student must talk about a career he or she might want to pursue, with the research done on the Internet and the report made as a Power Point presentation. Toward that end, Puertas is teaching the students how to use computers and software.

"We don't want students to be cut out of any educational opportunity because they lack skills or comfort levels" with computers, Puertas said.

Jose Luis Rivera, 39, a student in this class, said, "I'm a waiter. I thought I was too old to go to school." But, he added, "I want to be somebody different, not waiting tables for the rest of my life." A few weeks into the semester, however, he said he was "really stressing" because he was having trouble getting homework done. In addition to his full-time job, Rivera takes care of his two-year-old son several mornings a week. "I was ready to just walk away." But his instructors told him to do what he could. "'You come here to learn,' they said, 'don't worry about your grade.' Now I don't have that pressure."

Rivera said that when he started at CCD, he "didn't even know about financial aid. I thought I was going to pay for it myself." Staff at the first-generation students program suggested he apply for financial aid, and he got it. The money covers his tuition and book costs.

Once its first grant ended in 2000, Valdez-Fergason said, the program was absorbed into the college's own budget with the new name, the First Generation Student Success Program. But school officials saw that once the students finished their first year at CCD and moved into the major subject areas, the college was losing them. "Students sometimes experience academic culture shock" as they move from introductory courses into specific academic disciplines, Valdez-Fergason said. Retention was lacking in such fields as college-level algebra, biology, chemistry and information technology. So Valdez-Fergason and others at the college knew they had to take steps to increase the number of graduates.

A second federal grant of $1.9 million for 2000-2005 pays for what now is called the Access and Success Project, under Title V of the Higher Education Act. Valdez-Fergason said this project aims at infusing into the college's four academic centers-language arts and behavioral sciences, business and technology, educational advancement, and health, math and science-the concepts developed for helping the students through case managers. The idea of education case managers came out of the social services model, she said. "To some people that's a negative, but at our college it has always been a valued term."

Two case managers work with first-year students, and each has responsibility for about 300 students. These case managers know firsthand the kind of apprehension students may face. Debra Valverde started at CCD in 1989 and said she would just attend her classes and go home. "I had no guidance when I came in. I was an introvert." One of the counselors asked her to help with an orientation program for high school students. "I think that was what hooked me, her getting me involved with the school. That helped me come out of my shell," and eventually into a job as a case manager.

Once the students finish their first year, or 12 college-level credits, and begin an academic major, they are picked up by a case manager like Petia Ouzounova. Her parents had attended college, and she earned a degree at the University of Sofia in Bulgaria, did some freelance interpreting and taught, then came to Denver to study business. "The system was so different. I felt isolated. In Europe, we had always been with the same group. I suffered serious depression," she said. In essence, she was a first-generation student because the American system was totally new to her.

Then she was hired to work in CCD's writing center, which provides tutoring for students who are having problems with essays and other forms of composition. She later became a case manager for students in business and technology. European students gravitate toward her for advice when they are confused. "I had some women from the Czech Republic. You give them a book, they'll get an A, but the different processes throw them."

Ouzounova's colleague Michael Johnson said that the first-generation college students with whom he works face many barriers. For example, in the Hispanic culture, if someone's grandparent dies in Mexico, the student needs to be gone for two weeks in order to pay proper respect. "In the traditional system, if you miss two weeks of college, you're gone," Johnson said.

But in these cases, and another in which a student's younger brother was killed, Johnson was on the phone and sent e-mail messages to professors "to get them to cut them some slack. We're seen as enablers who want to keep people in college who don't belong there. But we can't let all of the problems of life knock these students off the track. We're an advocate. We're representing them. These are not just another case of 'the dog ate my homework.'"

The student ambassadors help as well. Cindy Mora, 41, and a junior majoring in criminal justice at Metropolitan State, works with 30 to 40 students at a time, making sure they take academic improvement courses, e-mailing them, trying to keep them on track. "A lot of times you don't realize how much affects students' lives," she said. Mora had not been to school in some time when she came to CCD in 1999 and had to refresh herself on many things, so she knows that in counseling students "you have to remember where you were coming from when you started."

Making sure that students keep current on financial aid deadlines is a task shared by the case managers and student ambassadors. All agreed that if students can get money off their minds, they can concentrate on their classes. Attending CCD costs a full-time student-one taking 12 credit hours-$944.65 per semester in tuition and fees. This fall about two thirds of the students in the First Generation Student Success Program received financial aid, not including loans.

The program tracks its students through a database refined by Chantee Montoya, 26, who is working toward a CCD degree in computer programming. "The old system wasn't very user-friendly" when she took it over in August 2002, Montoya said. She has adapted it so that the students can be flagged if they need some kind of academic intervention, and tracked to see if they have sought tutoring or have filed financial aid applications. The system also documents the contacts that case managers and student ambassadors have made.

Last year, the graduation rate for students in the first-generation program increased by 38 percent, said Valdez-Fergason. That contributed to an overall increase of 14 percent in degrees or certificates awarded by the Community College of Denver, as well as a 45 percent increase in graduates of color.

In 2002, 345 CCD students transferred to four-year institutions, almost half of whom were from underrepresented groups. The first-generation programs are just beginning to track their students to four-year institutions, so there is not yet any information about how well they are doing.

(Photo By Eric Lars Bakke, Black Star, For CrossTalk)   
"There's a lot of handholding, but we call it purposeful handholding," says Christine Johnson, president of the Community College of Denver.

The college's work with first-generation students has won national recognition. For example, the Policy Center on the First Year of College named CCD one of 13 "institutions of excellence." This center, based at Brevard College in western North Carolina, seeks to encourage colleges to redesign their first-year programs so that students have better experiences. "The beginning student experience at many campuses isn't given much thought," said the center's executive director, John Gardner. When students are bored by their classes or not engaged, they quit. "From the public policy point of view, there's the issue of student attrition-the drop out and flunk out rates. That's costly to the state, the institutions, the families and the students."

Gardner said that if he had to point to one reason for CCD's success, "it would be that people at that college are incredibly proud of their mission, and their mission is remediation-developmental education. Most American colleges are embarrassed about that. They want to hide it." But CCD, he added, "is just extraordinary in this aspect-so respectful of their students and so proud of them."

Valdez-Fergason is constantly pushing for improvements in the program-such as doing more to help students find what careers might be right for them. And she is still trying to "reform the academic culture" by encouraging development of more of the linked-learning community courses. But she is concerned about what Colorado's large budget deficit, and the resulting cuts in higher education spending, might mean for the program.

Despite growing enrollment, CCD received a 17 percent cut last year and another 14 percent this year, leaving the college with a $32 million operating budget, $12 million of which comes from federal contracts and grants. To cope, the college increased class size and eliminated classes for which fewer than 14 students enrolled. Some vacancies in student services went unfilled until this year. "All students and all programs felt the impact of fewer staff and more students," said CCD president Christine Johnson, but the college has continued to provide financial support for the first-generation student initiatives.

Johnson wants to strengthen what existed when she took over as CCD president in 2000. A first-generation college student herself, Johnson is a former English and Spanish teacher and high school principal in the Denver schools. She hopes to see more of that system's graduates go on to college. Fifty-six percent of Denver high school graduates need remedial work, she said, so CCD, working with the school board and superintendent, is giving students a basic assessment test as juniors. This allows time for students to improve their English and math in the senior year. "They ought to be remediated in high school so that when they graduate they are ready," she added.

Johnson said that she is aggressively raising money to support the first-generation programs. "The worst thing we could do is fill the students with hope and then say we don't have quite enough money for you."

Kay Mills, a former editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, has written four books, including one on the Federal Head Start program

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