A Message to College Students as the Year Begins

Author: Helios Education Foundation

July 30, 2019

For first-generation college students, navigating a new school environment can be daunting. Succeeding academically once they enroll, and completing a degree are often hindered by the circumstances these students have to face, like working full-time when enrolled or caring for other family members. These students also don’t have the benefit of drawing from their parents’ college-going experience. 

Sometimes, academic and financial struggles can lead first-generation students to leave school altogether, leaving behind not only their dreams, but the potential of increased opportunity. Sometimes, though, hearing from other people who have overcome obstacles in their pursuit of education can be a reinforcement for students, and help them realize that with determination and the right help, postsecondary success is possible.

Recently, Helios President and CEO, Paul Luna, spoke to students at the Maricopa Community Colleges EXCEL Summer Institute. EXCEL is a student success program for students that would like to have additional support, advice, and guidance obtaining an associate’s degree and/or help to transfer successfully to a four-year university. The goal of EXCEL is to help students feel like they’re not alone, and someone is right there with them every step of the way.

When speaking to students about being a first-generation, Latino student at Stanford University during the 1980s, Mr. Luna spoke candidly about the struggles he faced. He shared he was a minority in three ways, racially, academically, and financially. While his fellow students were vacationing during the summer, Mr. Luna would work with his cousin laying tile.

He gave the students advice on not being afraid to seek out guidance while acknowledging that he was often afraid as a student to admit he didn’t understand something. He knows it can be hard as a first-generation student to admit there are unknowns, but the grit many first-generation students possess will help them persevere when challenges arise – after all, that’s what helped the students to whom he spoke overcome barriers and be where they are now. 

“I wish there had been a program like EXCEL at Stanford when I was there. It would have helped me out tremendously, and that’s why Helios, and I personally, am committed to programs that help students succeed,” Mr. Luna told students.

After speaking to the students, Mr. Luna and other guests, including Glendale Community College President Teresa Leyba Ruiz, Ed.D., and Estrella Community College President, Rey Rivera, Ed. D.

Dr. Leyba Ruiz spoke about the moment she knew she had to attend college, when her father told her she had to, and how she went from Phoenix College then to Arizona State University. She told the students relying on her family and friends when things were hard helped her persevere.

A native of rural Texas, Dr. Rivera spoke making connections with fellow students while at the University of Texas and how that helped him when he was having difficulties. Having a group of fellow students on whom to rely helped him to not fear asking for guidance and helped him graduate.

Overall, the message to students was clear. We believe you should be given every opportunity to succeed, and if you use the tools being provided to you by the college and persist in times of difficulty, your success is imminent.

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