Uncommonly visible: First-generation students at Linfield are beacons, award-winners

Karina Alcantara Guerrero is a peer mentor in the Linfield University First Scholars program.

Karina Alcantara Guerrero is a peer mentor in the Linfield University First Scholars program.

The Linfield University‘s McMinnville Campus was filled with unknown elements for students Ruby Trujillo and Karina Alcantara Guerrero. Fortunately, the university was ready and able to welcome them and hundreds of their first-generation peers in making a giant leap into higher education. 

“The (First Scholars) leaders made me feel at home, like I belong somewhere. They made me feel like I’m not alone and not the only first-generation Latinx student,” Trujillo said. 

On Nov. 18, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) honored Linfield’s First Scholars program with a Beacon Award for Excellence in Student Achievement. The award honors a program’s ability to be replicated and scaled to increase student retention and success at other institutions. The Beacon Award comes with a $2,500 check to support continued growth. 

The Linfield difference

First-generation students are more likely than other students to feel as though higher education is a cultural mismatch, a place where their cultural norms are unlike the institutions they attend. The mismatch can become a barrier to success, but Linfield is uncommonly ready to help first-generation students traverse any divides with its First Scholars Program.

Linfield’s First Scholars program provides a wrap-around, culturally-relevant experience that connects incoming first-generation students with current first-generation student mentors and a member of the Linfield faculty.

Mentors begin building relationships with incoming first-generation students the summer before they arrive on campus. Through Zoom meet-ups, in-person activities and group meals, the mentors build on early connections throughout the students’ Linfield experience. The program is making a tangible difference on Linfield’s campuses in McMinnville and Portland. 

First Scholars increased retention of Latinx students to 80%, comparable with the retention rates of all other students. In the year prior to the pandemic, First Scholar students led the entire student body in retention.

“The impact has been enormous, and new students are eager for the opportunity to connect other students from similar backgrounds,” said Gerardo Ochoa, Linfield’s associate vice president of student retention and success. Ochoa championed the program from the outset and continues to guide student leaders like Trujillo and Alcantara Guerrero alongside student Lucy Kerr.

A new conversation

The First Scholars program grew from a change to the way Linfield awarded diversity scholarships. Linfield’s financial aid officers redirected scholarships to first-generation students with other factors given less weight.  

“It was a controversial decision,” said Linfield President Dr. Miles Davis. “As we enter a conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion, we also have to have conversations about access. Unless we reach out to people who were previously excluded from education, we cannot create an equitable society inclusive of people from all different backgrounds and truly diverse.”

A First Scholars financial award can reduce a family’s expected tuition contribution by more than $40,000.

As a result of her positive experiences in First Scholars, Alcantara Guerrero is giving back to the program as a mentor to incoming first-generation Wildcats.

“We have to remember that we have worked as hard as anybody to be in this space, and we can’t doubt that ability,” said Alcantara Guerrero.

(Strategic Communications interns Kathryn Canfield and Ben O’Loughlin contributed to the reporting of this story.)