Nevada State College program helps first-generation students make transition to university life

Entering college can often be daunting for a first-generation college student.

“There are a lot of additional obstacles they face when starting their first year,” said Leila Pazargadi, an assistant professor at Nevada State College. “But first-generation students have a pioneering spirit. We are here to support that.”

Seeing those challenges, the college created the Nepantla Program, which is designed to help first-generation and underrepresented students transition from high school to college.

Nepantla refers to a concept often used in Chicano and Latino literature and art, referring to “in-between-ness.” A Nahuatl word, it literally means “in the middle of it” or “middle.”

In 2013, the program launched its summer bridge program, a six-week program for incoming freshmen to complete before their first year. The students from that cohort are expected to graduate in 2017 — though one already graduated early.

During that program, students take a math course and English composition and take workshops on time management, financial literacy, and tips to reduce anxiety and stress from classes.

“They are here pretty much 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday,” said Pazargadi, who also started the Nepantla Program.

Students also hear from faculty, graduates and other members of the community about overcoming obstacles to get into college and life after graduation. Pazargadi said the program’s success is in the numbers and that students in the program score higher in English and math than other students.

For students such as Linh Truong and Marco Lopez, who were part of the 2015 summer bridge program, their time with Nepantla has been invaluable.

“I think I would have been a lost puppy without it,” Lopez said. “It prepared me for my first year of college and what to expect.”

Both first-generation college students, they joined the program as a way to help them ease into higher education.

“It was stressful with all the work,” said Lopez, “but it was worth it. Sometimes, you have to make sacrifices to be a part of something great.”

They recently finished their freshman years at Nevada State College, 1125 Nevada State Drive in Henderson.

Last summer, the program began offering peer-to-peer workshops in which former summer bridge students prepared seminars for current participants. Pazargadi said certain participants have come back to volunteer to be peers and offer advice to the new class expected to start later in June.

Getting students into the program starts with talking to them while they are in high school.

Joseph Guerrero, the program coordinator with Nepantla, will go to high schools to start talking with students — in particular, first-generation or undocumented students — about which options are out there.

“Many of them have questions or have heard a lot of myths about college,” he said. “Then, of course, they have questions about things like financial aid.”

For many of them, the summer bridge program is a natural first step.

“If Nevada State isn’t the best fit, we still help them,” Guerrero added.

As the program has grown in what it offers, it also has added to the number of students who use it. Its first year had 23 students, and 40 are expected in the next group.

Even after the summer bridge program ended, Pazargadi and other faculty members continued to mentor and provide resources for Nepantla students. But they wanted a way to make sure students had full-time support as they continued to navigate college. Nevada State College recently created a permanent position to help oversee students’ first-year experiences

In addition to continual faculty support and peer-to-peer mentorship, students in the program also take specialized curriculum in social justice and literature.

“It helps them with their identity formation,” Pazargadi said.

Now that more underrepresented students are being attracted to college, Pazargadi is encouraging many to look into continuing their education.

“And some of them are,” she said. “Some of the students will go on to law school, medical school or to get their Ph.D.s.”

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Editor’s note: Nevada State College announced after press time that the Nepantla Program has a new director, Leilani Carreno. She is a first-generation college graduate herself. This year’s program was set to kick off June 25 with a general orientation.

To reach Henderson View reporter Michael Lyle, email or call 702-387-5201. Find him on Twitter: @mjlyle.

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