Crystal De La Riva ’09 (M.A. ’17) was a terrific student at Orange High School, earned scholarships and had the support of nearby family when she enrolled at Chapman University. So, despite being the first in her family to attend college, her transition to campus life should have been a breeze, right?

Well, not quite.

From those early days, she recalls experiencing a jolt of surprise that textbooks were not included in her scholarship package, and there was sticker shock when she joined a new college friend in a shopping trip to Nordstrom – a department store near where she grew up but which she had never visited. Then there was the awkward moment when she came to campus for a 9 a.m. class registration appointment, only to discover that the appointment was online.

She managed those mix-ups. But extra help would have been, well, helpful, she says.

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Crystal De La Riva ’09 (M.A. ’17)

“It was like a secret club that I was not part of,” she says. “It was a little bumpy. It’s hard to say those things. But that was an older Chapman. It’s a different place now.”

Changes have come thanks, in part, to the very work De La Riva does as coordinator of Chapman’s Promising Futures Program, an initiative aimed at smoothing out those kinds of bumps for students who are the first in their families to attend a college or university. Throughout the school year, Promising Futures offers both social and practical activities, from evening mixers to financial-aid workshops.

This summer Promising Futures grew those efforts, expanding its summer bridge orientation for first-generation students from two to three days.

“In a lot of our feedback surveys, students were asking for more,” De La Riva says.

The three-day program is scheduled a few days in advance of regular Orientation, and helps students and families new to higher education get a feel for campus life and expectations before the entire cohort of new students arrives, De La Riva says. Activities range from panel discussions with first-generation faculty to a pizza dinner in Old Towne Orange.

The emphasis is on logistics and routines of college life, because academic challenges are rarely an issue for first-generation students.

“First-generation students are so resilient. They’re strong and they have a lot to offer academically,” she says. “They don’t necessarily need anything other than just some support.”

The heart of the program is the volunteer staff and student workers who bring it all together. They’re first-generation students themselves, most of whom also attended the summer program when they entered Chapman. Screenwriting major and Promising Futures mentor Neal Carter ’19 says the program was so helpful that he returns as a volunteer, in addition to the time he spends as a student worker for De La Riva.

“It helps you get a jump start and understand what college life is going to be like,” Carter says.

The student mentors also offer advice that can resonate differently when dispensed by a fellow student. Carter’s favorite words of wisdom?

“Don’t try to be what you think everyone wants you to be. Don’t force it,” he says.

When she mentors new Promising Futures students, public relations and advertising major Bryana Schuyler ’18 offers both philosophical and practical insights. First, use those office hours to get to know professors. Also, try not to worry about not fitting in.

chapman faculty and student

Presidential Fellow Ruebén Martinez and Jennifer Cruz ’20 (Photo/Amanda Galemmo ’20)

“We talk to them a lot about imposter syndrome,” she says. “You might feel like you don’t belong here, but you’ve made it this far and the challenges you’ve had as a first-generation student have made you way stronger.”

Jennifer Cruz ’20 is a Promising Futures student who works as an assistant for Presidential Fellow Ruebén Martinez. But during her freshman year, Cruz commuted to campus by bus and worked off campus, so she was able to participate in only a few Promising Futures activities. Her parents are field laborers who travel from Santa Ana to work long days in Irvine, but her older brother recently graduated from college, so he was able to offer some insights.

Despite staying close to home, she says college life initially “was kind of scary.”

Still, she found friendships in a student club and new confidence in those office hours Schuyler recommends. Her first office hours challenge was befuddlement over APA citation format for citing sources used in research papers. Her high school had taught MLA format.

Guess Who Else Is First-Gen?

Provost Glenn Pfeiffer, Ph.D., and his siblings were the first in their family to graduate from college. Read more in a recent Chapman Magazine story.

“I kind of felt left out. So I went to the professor and she helped me out,” says Cruz, an integrated educational studies major with a minor in health sciences and psychology.

That seemingly simple step was just the beginning.

“I was a really shy person,” Cruz says. “But after I started coming here, I became more open to the different things I can do here at Chapman.”

Learn More

To learn more about the upcoming events planned for first-generation students, visit the Promising Futures web page.