Episode 23: Supporting First Gen Students with CAP

CAP post image.png

Today’s episode features a panel from Making Waves Foundation’s College & Alumni Program (CAP). CAP provides financial literacy, college coaching, scholarships, career development, and professional networking opportunities to close the gap from college acceptance to college completion for low-income and underserved college students. Four CAP staff members – Ana Calderon, David Ochoa, Dr. Kristina Wright, and Victoria Kupu, will be sharing their experiences as First Gen Professionals working to support and create opportunities for First Generation College Students.

Show Notes:

In this episode, Dr. Hernandez interviews Four Making Waves College & Alumni Program staff members who share their experiences as First Gen Professionals working to support and create opportunities for First Generation College Students. Ana Calderon, David Ochoa, and Victoria Kupu are in the College Financial Service Coordinator position and Dr. Kristina Wright is a Coaching Services Manager. They discuss the importance of financial support and coaching in First Gen student success. They also share some of the strengths and coping strategies they have experienced or witnessed when working with First Gen students. Here are a few highlights from the episode:

-       Dr. Wright (Kristina) discusses the goal of the CAP program – to help students graduate as quickly as possible with as little debt as possible while equipping them to have the skills and experiences they need to be contributors to the global workforce (1:59)

-       Some panelists shared their motivations for working at a program like CAP. For Ana, it was having previously participated in a similar program and experiencing first-hand the good it can do. For David, it was being able to help students develop financial literacy and to become the resource for others that he never had while in college (2:33).

Managing Finances

-       The panelists discussed some common financial mistakes when starting college (3:53):

  • Not asking questions when you get your financial award letter, particularly how much of the financial aid is provided through loans.

  • Not applying for outside scholarships – even small amounts can make a huge difference.

-       They also provided some strategies to look for additional aid (5:34):

  • If you are in high school, ask your college counselor and the career center about scholarship opportunities.

  • Look for local scholarships first, then expand to nationwide scholarships.

  • Don’t be discouraged by the competitiveness of the scholarship, you never know what could happen.

  • Approach the financial aid search with a positive mindset and know your financial profile.

  • Do an annual review of your financial profile because things are always changing. Know how changes (either gains or losses) will affect your financial aid package and prepare for those shifts.

  • Many colleges and universities have their own scholarship database so find out what scholarships are available on your campus.

  • Look into whether your campus offers emergency funds and what the eligibility criteria are.

  • The financial aid office is invested in your success so ask questions and let them know what kind of help you need.

  • Look for scholarships or paid internship opportunities during the summer breaks.

  • Look for paid opportunities on campus (RA positions, Orientation leadership positions, etc.)

  • The money is out there; you just have to apply for it! 

-       The panelists also reflected on how to manage debt once students have graduated from college (11:18):

  • Engage in exit loan counseling.

  • Examine your total debt and repayment options.

  • Create a financial budget to see how much you can afford to repay every month and plan for other financial commitments accordingly (i.e. car, housing, savings, etc.)

-       The panelists tackled the question of how to help First Gen students explore the idea that they can earn more money and help their families in the present by getting a job instead of going to college. Ana noted that taking a long-term approach versus having a short-term perspective is going to help students realize that they can achieve the same goal (helping their family) more effectively if they pursue college (11:47).

-       They also reflected on how managing and minimizing student debt proactively, has a big impact on First Gen career choices (13:14). For instance, they can be more judicious about the jobs they choose, they don’t have to be so focused on finances as the sole motivator, and they can pursue other enriching opportunities like Peace Corps or Teach for America. Additionally, they can feel free to follow their passions and choose majors that are not necessarily linked to future earning potential or have the time and flexibility to double major because they don’t have to worry about paying student loans or working part-time while in school.  


-       Kristina describes how the coaching component of the CAP program supports students in their college journey (14:49). Coaching consists of weekly meetings (in-person or over the phone) to discuss their academic, social, and emotional transition to college.

-       Kristina noted that most students are academically sound and it is the social and emotional adjustment to college that presents the most challenges. The coaches help identify resources on campus, practice dialogue for accessing resources, demystify different systems on campus, and offer accountability.

First Gen Strengths

-       The panelists share the strengths they have seen in the students they work with and even in themselves as first generation professionals (19:21):

  • Resilience – they overcome obstacles every day.

  • Responsible – they often have jobs, take care of siblings, or contribute to their household, all while pursuing their education.

  • Community Oriented – they often want to come back to their communities and recycle their success.

  • Willingness to learn

  • Motivated  

Coping skills for First Gen Students

-       The CAP staff also shared their perspective on useful coping skills for First Gen students to develop (22:06):

  • Join a network and develop connections to campus (clubs, organizations, friends, etc.).

  • Find people who validate and empower you.

  • Find a professor or advisor that you can connect with.

  • Work through and process those feelings of guilt over leaving your community.

 Transitioning into a First Generation Professional

-       David found that when he entered the professional world, his co-workers didn’t have the same stresses or struggles that he did. He felt pressure to provide for his family while his co-workers were focused on their individual experiences (27:06).

-       Ana felt passionate about her job but did feel a sense of urgency to stay in her job and do well in it because she was married and had a child of her own to support (28:27).

-       Kristina shared about her transition to first generation graduate student (30:38). After working for a bit after college, she realized she would need an advanced degree to move up in her organization and also provide more support to the students she was working with. Her advice is to try to build a brand through professional activities that highlight who you are as a person so that your resume and experiences can compensate for a less competitive GPA. Kristina was motivated to pursue her doctorate degree to inspire and motivate others who come from similar communities.

-       Kristina noted that the difference between her undergraduate and graduate experiences was being able to focus on subjects and topics that she was passionate about (32:55).

 Comprehensive First Gen Programs

-       The panelists highlighted what to look for in terms of programs that support First Gen Students (34:27).

  • Academic Advising – that provides a roadmap

  • Financial Support – scholarships, financial literacy, etc.

  • Mentoring – social and emotional support

 First Gen Identity as an Asset

-       Each of the panelists described how their First Gen identity is an asset to the work that they do (35:26). The First Gen identity allows them to:

  • Have the ability to relate to the students and families they work with.

  • Have the ability to create trust with students and families.

  • Have a positive, strengths-based approach that values culture and community.

  • Connect their work with a sense of purpose and mission.

  • Serve as a model for what is possible through education.

  • Build a professional identity that is linked to their First Gen identity.

Connect with CAP - @makingwavesfdn on twitter or instagram

Episode 22: Comprehensive First Gen Programs