By Tatiana Sanchez, Assistant Director for Storytelling, Santa Clara University

Shirley Naranjo, Santa Clara ‘23 (Photo courtesy of Santa Clara University)


As the coronavirus pandemic raged on in December 2020, Shirley Naranjo ‘23 faced a crisis of her own.

Five years after moving to the United States from Ecuador, Naranjo suddenly found herself without a place to live. Her landlord wanted a longer-term tenant and had just asked her to move out of her modest rental home in Stamford, Conn. She couldn’t move back in with her father, with whom she had a tumultuous relationship. With no family to turn to and an hourly job at a local grocery store, Naranjo was short on options.

Naranjo had been accepted into Santa Clara University (SCU) as a transfer student and was set to start in January 2021. But the lack of family support and mounting financial stress threw her dream into question.

Naranjo connected with Erin Kimura-Walsh, director of the university’s LEAD Scholars program, which supports first-generation students at SCU. Within days, Kimura-Walsh arranged emergency housing on campus ahead of the start of the winter quarter. On Jan. 3, Naranjo moved into the Villas Residence Hall and received guidance from the University’s One Stop Office, which assists students with billing, financial aid and registration.

“It was everything to me because I felt safe, and my hard work was being recognized,” Naranjo recalled. “Without LEAD, I don’t think I would be here.”

One year later, Naranjo is thriving at Santa Clara, majoring in civil, environmental and sustainable engineering. A member of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers, she hopes to pursue a career that addresses California’s worsening environmental crises, including devastating wildfires and water shortages.

Welcoming and mentoring first-generation college students like Naranjo as they navigate the often difficult and unique journey through college is an integral part of Santa Clara’s mission. An estimated 14 percent of SCU’s first-years are the first in their families to go to college, according to Kimura-Walsh.

But being on a campus where many come from affluent families with college histories and are of traditional college age can be isolating and even discouraging for first-generation students, many of whom come from underrepresented, low-income communities.

Without the guidance of a parent or family member who went to college, first- generation students are often left to navigate institutions of higher education on their own—exploring financial aid options, registering for classes, knowing what questions to ask in class, networking for internship opportunities, or even what a professor means when they say to come for office hours.

All the hidden costs of college can also derail a student’s academic career. For example, affording a meal off campus to decompress or socialize with friends may be out of the question. “What we find with our LEAD students is, these structures and the bureaucracy of the policies and procedures that are set up within the university don’t always address and accommodate their needs,” Kimura-Walsh says.

Programs like SCU’s LEAD, which welcomed 130 first-year students this year, can help keep a university honest by acknowledging its shortcomings and actively working to fix them.

Some of LEAD’s primary elements include:

In some cases, the program offers a ready-made family to students entering a community that might make them feel isolated.

“All of those pieces provide our students with comprehensive support that’s really going to help them not only to be successful academically, but to thrive and get the most out of a Santa Clara education,” Kimura-Walsh said.

LEAD also gave its students more than $250,000 in emergency funding last year to cover urgent living and emergency expenses—such as laptops or Wi-Fi access—as well as scholarship needs, said Kimura-Walsh.

“That has been incredibly important this past year, especially as our students face so many financial challenges,” she said. “They lost their own jobs, parents lost jobs. They and their family members got sick.”

Thiadora Pina, a LEAD advisor and associate clinical professor at SCU’s School of Law, said she remembers clearly the overwhelming feeling of isolation she experienced throughout her time at the University of Massachusetts and Boston University School of Law.

A Boston native whose grandparents immigrated from the Cape Verde islands off the west coast of Africa, Pina was the first to go to college in a family of 15 aunts and uncles. She worked full-time as a nurse’s aid to pay for her studies and textbooks. Her parents let her live at home and paid for meals, but they couldn’t guide her through college and law school.

“When I got into law school, it was a little bit of a culture shock,” Pina said. “Professors didn’t know me and I didn’t know them. I also didn’t have the confidence to talk because I was scared and thought, ‘What do I have to talk about?’ I was lost a lot of the time.”

Last year, Pina became the first faculty advisor for SCU’s First-Generation Law Student Association, a student-based organization founded in 2020 that creates a space for students who are the first in their families to attend law school.

“It’s a mission for me to make sure students don’t go through what I went through,” Pina said. “There’s just no need for it. We have the information. My goal is to disseminate that information loudly and broadly.”

“When you’re first gen, it is not a level playing field. Santa Clara does a wonderful job of recognizing that and saying, ‘Let’s do our best to make it level.’ Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. I think Santa Clara recognizes that.”

While programs like LEAD have had a tremendous impact in a small amount of time, there is more work to do.

Alison Benders, vice president for Mission and Ministry at Santa Clara, points out that many of the most meaningful immersion and volunteer experiences that serve the community and facilitate student growth are financially unavailable to some first-generation students.

“Trying to secure donor support for immersions, for paid internships and trying to help mentor these students is critical,” Benders says.

And giving equal exposure to first-gen students isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s an investment that will pay real dividends to the University, its mission and its surrounding communities. Not only are LEAD students among the highest performing students year in and year out at Santa Clara, but Benders, at least anecdotally, has seen how they pay forward the help they receive.

LEAD Scholars are also the most likely to use their experiences to return to their own or other historically excluded communities to engage in nonprofit or other work that improves the lives of those who live there.

“This is a group of students who wants to give back, wants the training, the preparation, the mentoring, yet has the least resources in terms of family financial support to be able to do those things,” Benders said. “Helping them with that is a really critical piece.”