Her achievements in high school helped Nathaly Del Real ’19 earn a full scholarship to a small New England liberal arts college, but she felt as adrift there as the snow. A first-generation college student, she was nearly 3,000 miles from her family in Santa Ana before she transferred to Chapman University.

“There was a full ride, but it was very different, very foreign to me. That was the cost of it all,” said Del Real, who transferred after two years. “I really did fall in love, not only with Chapman, but I wanted to be here, more connected to my community. Here, I feel a lot of support.”

Del Real is one of about two dozen students who have taken part in the first sessions of Chapman’s new First and Foremost program, which provides first-generation students with a supportive community as they begin a journey their parents never made.

One in six students offered admission to Chapman’s Class of 2022 is on track to become the first in their family to graduate from college, while about 19.5 percent of all Chapman undergraduates are first-generation students. These students receive support from multiple programs, including the First Generation Summer Bridge Program and First and Foremost.

The First and Foremost students participate in six two-hour evening sessions, at which they learn about creating their own “elevator pitch,” networking, interview skills and creating resumes and LinkedIn profiles. They also get professional headshots and complete assessments designed to help suggest career paths.

Helen Cabrera ’21, a first-generation student at Chapman, is photographed by Amanda Galemmo ’20 to provide a headshot for her LinkedIn profile.

“You guys all deserve to be here,” program coordinator Crystal De La Riva ’09 (M.A. ’17), herself a first-generation graduate, told the students one evening as they paired up to practice skills making connections with potential employers. “You deserve to network. You have the right to own this.”

First-generation students might once have entered college with academic deficits, but De La Riva said that is no longer the case at Chapman.

“Our first-generation students come in extremely prepared, intelligent, they’re set, especially compared to when I started college. They’re light years ahead of me,” De La Riva said. “The program focuses a lot more on the cultural capital, the social capital, really developing their confidence that they belong in an institution like this and that they have something to offer.”

Many of the students already have visions of their future.

Romania native Roxane Cociu ’21, a kinesiology major, is interested in sports medicine or pre-med studies; Christian Castillo ’20, a business major, wants to help communities that are struggling economically rebuild from within.

De La Riva watches expectantly to see what her students will do with their Chapman experiences.

“They’re creating this opportunity, creating a legacy,” she said. “I always tell them when they graduate, ‘You know, you’re the last first-generation student in your family.’

“It’s really kind of a bittersweet moment. There’s a pride, but also a recognition what that means for them culturally, and how they want to pass that down.”

Photo display at top/Jaylyn Scott ’21 is among about two dozen First and Foremost students exploring potential majors and career opportunities.

Photos/Dennis Arp

This story appeared in the spring 2018 issue of Chapman Magazine.