By Ashley Skutt, Communications Manager for Student Affairs, and John Kissell, Writer and Editor, Loyola Marymount University
Loyola Marymount University’s First To Go Program took root in 2010 as a means of filling a gap in services for first-generation college students, drawing roughly a dozen participants at the onset. The next year, the number doubled.
As First To Go reached its tenth anniversary during the 2020-21 academic year, the program welcomed more than 850 scholars who were the first in their immediate families to attend college, by offering events, classes and seminars catered to fostering students’ academic, professional, and personal success.
“We want First To Go students to know and understand that this is an assets-based program,” said coordinator Alexia Pineda, an LMU alumna who participated in First To Go when she was an undergraduate. “We view first-generation students as our educators because they inform us every day what resilience looks like. They are the students who really know what it means to solve a problem, and we want them to realize the superpowers that they already have.”
In Spring 2021, First To Go marked ten years on the bluff in the Westchester neighborhood of Los Angeles with a reunion that attracted roughly 100 students and alumni. Held in a virtual format due to the Covid pandemic, the celebration served as a tribute to the program’s growth and the accomplishments of the students it serves, many of whom hold leadership roles in campus organizations. Program graduates have gone on to graduate school to work in higher education, law or medical school, and to work for such organizations and institutions as the Peace Corps, Teach for America, City Year Educators, and LMU, as well as companies like Disney.
“My experience with First To Go was one built on support, love, and family,” said Pineda. “Because of the love and support I have received, along with the connection I have established to my first-gen identity, I have found it only right to give back to my first-generation community by helping those in classes after me navigate the stressors of college, in the same way I have been helped and guided up to this point.”
First To Go was started by La’Tonya Rease Miles, Ph.D., a first-generation student herself, whose impactful tenure as director broadened and deepened the impact of LMU’s Academic Resource Center.
The program’s mission is to reinforce and build upon the unique sources of cultural capital that first-generation college students bring to LMU, thus creating a community that promotes and progresses students’ successes during their tenure. The First To Go Scholars Program, a yearlong learning community that includes a summer intensive program, is comprised of two one-unit courses in the fall and spring semesters of a student’s first year at LMU. It is taught by other first-gen student leaders.
In recognition of the program’s success, LMU was chosen in May 2020 to participate in the 2020-21 cohort of First-gen Forward Institutions, by the Center for First-Generation Student Success, an initiative of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and the Suder Foundation. The First-Gen Forward designation acknowledges higher education institutions that have demonstrated a commitment to improving experiences and advancing first-generation college students’ outcomes.
“First-generation students represent the first in their families to enter the higher education learning environment,” said Mia Watson, director of LMU’s Academic Resource Center, which offers academic advising, writing center and tutoring support, in addition to first-generation student resources. “They are all exploring their identities and highlighting their history as they apply what it means to be a first-gen student to their lifelong goals. There’s a sense of irony that the program’s 10-year anniversary coincides with a global pandemic: [First To Go] is needed to support the lives of our students this year more than ever.”
For Daniel Herrera ’21, the priority is the pride that first-generation students have for school. “I want everyone to know the pride and immense effort each first-gen student puts into their schoolwork and extracurriculars,” Herrera said. “The higher education system was not designed in favor of first-generation students, but we strive for exemplary feats that make us leaders in our communities and the world.”
For Atithi Multani ’24, First To Go has given her the academic and emotional support to meet the challenges of this academic year and virtual learning environment. “I’ve received tutoring from the Academic Resource Center, learned so many things about college, and made a lot of new friends,” Multani said. “I want the LMU community to know that First To Go and first-gen students are all there for each other. First-To Go is a family, and we can always count on each other for advice, a shoulder to cry on, or even to share a laugh.”