Navigating the culture of college
When Mirna Serrano started at St. Catherine University in 2014, she was overwhelmed with all the typical decisions and life choices that confront most first-year students. Not only did she need to learn how to manage her academic schedule, she also had to wade through the complexities of financial aid and find a job (or in her case, three) to help pay for tuition.
Unlike many of her classmates, Serrano faced an additional hurdle: While her parents were eager to provide the love and financial support their only child needed to make the transition to life after high school, neither of them had attended college.
“I really didn’t feel like I could navigate the system,” said Serrano, who is a junior majoring in legal studies with minors in communication studies and nonprofit strategies and operations. “I wanted my parents to physically help me with the paper work, but they couldn’t. I can’t count the number of times I cried and wanted to leave school.”
That difficult experience turned into a catalyst for Serrano to support other students like her. Launched last year, the First Generation Scholars League (FSGL) is a student club with the mission to raise social awareness, build community and improve the academic success of St. Kate students whose parents never went to college.
Founded on the idea that having peers who share and understand your experience can be a key to success in the world of higher education, the club provides anything from relaxed homework sessions to presentations on financing college. The hope is that the club offers the informal — and often invisible — help that many students get from family members who have attended college.
“Our parents really want us to do well,” said Serrano. “But when it comes to the academic support, other students are the ones who can validate you and give you that love.”
The idea of “providing that love” fits perfectly with the mission of St. Kate’s, where a third of the school’s traditional-age students are the first generation in their family to attend college. “Our first-generation students are a critical component of our commitment to diversity,” said Curt Galloway, the University’s dean of students, who adds that St. Kate’s provides options for many students who might not have access to an education at other schools.
The university encourages first-generation students through several initiatives, from a peer-mentoring program to the Emerging Scholars Community for students who may need additional academic support.
It is also committed to helping students’ parents understand the culture of higher education, according to Ellen Richter-Norgel, the university’s associate dean for students and retention. That can mean adding steps to increase the university’s inclusiveness, such as having interpreters as college events. There’s also an annual phone-a-thon to parents to not only get their perspective on the progress of their daughters’ educations but also to provide answers to any questions they may have about St. Kate’s.
Still, there was a need for the kind of been-there-done-that camaraderie that happens when students connect with one another, which is why Serrano and her FGSL co-president, Elizabeth Juarez Diaz, decided to establish a club. Today, the club has 60 members and is not only gaining a presence of campus but enjoying the successes of helping members move outside the gates of the university and secure internships. Serrano hopes the FGSL can serve as a model to other colleges throughout the region.
Sitting with Serrano in the Coeur de Catherine, the university’s student center, it’s hard to imagine that a woman who is so naturally enthusiastic and poised for success ever worried she could master the challenges of college. Serrano credits her work with FGSL for giving her the confidence to become active in other campus initiatives, including being the co-president of the Latina Student Association and leading “Pizza and Politics,” which uses a Catholic social teaching approach to engage students in productive political discussions.
“I see myself as a leader now,” said Serrano, who hopes to eventually do policy work for a government or nonprofit organization. In the meantime, she relishes the opportunity to help students who may need an extra hand when it comes to mastering the culture of college.
“When you come to college and are the first to do so in your family, it’s like stepping off a plane in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and don’t have a map,” she said. “We are like the translators to help navigate this new place.”