Documentary sheds light on first-generation students

4/28/2011 | By: Carolina Chacon  |

Dozens of students, faculty and community members attended the premiere of “Nevada’s First-Generation,” a short documentary highlighting the experiences of first-generation students at the University of Nevada, Reno, on Thursday, April 21 at the Joe Crowley Student Union Theatre.

The documentary, about 30 minutes long, was written, directed and produced by Christopher Barry, a graduate student at the University studying educational leadership. Barry works as a graduate assistant for the Center for Student Cultural Diversity’s MOSAIC Initiative, a program designed to empower the University’s first-generation (students whose parents have not received a four-year college degree) and low-income students.

“I think it’s important to be advocates for students who are disadvantaged,” Barry said. “This documentary was something I thought could raise awareness and encourage their success.”

After the screening, Rita Laden, who leads the graduate program in educational leadership and was featured in the documentary as a first-generation student herself, moderated a discussion panel about the difficulties of helping first-generation students succeed in college. The documentary’s fellow stars spoke about how they had felt disconnected from non-first generation students in their classes at the beginning of their college careers.

“I think some of the other students don’t know what the challenges are for first-generation students to get good grades,” Jody Lykes, coordinator for the Black Culture Cooperative at the center, said during the panel.

Michelle McCauley, coordinator for the center’s Intertribal Higher Education Program and also a first-generation college student and panelist, said that she dropped out of college because she felt misunderstood and mistreated by her peers and educators. She credited a conversation with Reginald Stewart, director of the center, with persuading her to return to school. Karla Hernandez, a graduate student studying pharmacology, added that as a first-generation student she had found it difficult to relate to many of her classmates.

“I’ve had to deal with a lot of profiling,” Hernandez said during the panel. “I’m sure I’m always going to have to struggle with that.”

Barry said it was because of these many challenges that inspired him to write the film.

“I want to see equity across our society more,” he said. “Not only is it hard for first-generation college students to get access [to higher education] but to actually succeed as well.”

Barry layered the documentary with statistics about Nevada’s economy and its relationship to first-generation college students. According to statistics shown in the film, 34.5 percent of Nevada’s entering freshmen are first-generation students and only 21 percent of Nevada’s adults have earned a bachelor’s degree. What’s more worrisome, the film indicated, is that 45 percent of first-generation college students drop out of school.

“Increasingly, to get high-wage jobs, you have to have a college degree, and first-generation students are the most disadvantaged for that,” Barry said.

The panelists and stars in the documentary agreed that student organizations and departments like the center at the University of Nevada, Reno, can help guide first-generation students and alert them to the resources available to them, easing the transition from high school to college.

The Center for Student Cultural Diversity was recently awarded one of 17 national awards by the College Board for its exemplary student-retention program, College Life 101. The program serves University of Nevada students who want an additional level of service and grade-level programming and includes regular meetings with coordinators, mid-term progress reports and academic, career and financial advising. University administration officials praise the center’s programs for helping the freshmen retention rate rise to 80 percent in fall 2010, an all-time high for the University.

After the documentary’s premiere, the stars and panelists said that graduation rates were even more significant for struggling first-generation college students.

Daniel Enrique Perez, a professor in the languages and literatures department, said, “When one of us graduates, we all graduate, as a community, as a people.”


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