Illustration by Matt Boblet.

First-generation students constitute an increasing proportion of UC Santa Cruz’s student body. This year, at least 45 percent of incoming frosh and 39 percent of junior transfers come from parents who never earned a four-year degree, according to the UCSC Office of Admissions.

“Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes,” said associate director of admissions Michael McCawley. “First-generation is another form of diversity, so we want that.”

Several students did not report their first-generation status, either because they were unaware of their status or because they did not think it was important to include, McCawley said.

“Many [first-generation students] don’t consider themselves as starting in a deficit,” McCawley said. “We at admissions see it as a product of the information they provide in the application, but they don’t talk about it.”

Director of admissions Michelle Whittingham attributes the steady increase in first-generation students to California’s changing demographics and the increased value of an education.

“The students we’re serving today are much different than they were 10 [years ago], especially 20 years ago,” Whittingham said.

When it comes to the demographics of the first-generation students, many come from families in under-priviledged communities.

Second-year Jimena Garcia’s parents pushed her to reach for their “American dream” and to be a role model for her younger sister.

“My options were going to college or being in the army,” Garcia said. “But when the college application process came around, my parents didn’t know what to do. My school had a lot of meetings for parents about encouraging students and applying for scholarships, but my mom didn’t know how the process worked. I had to figure out all of it by myself.”

This term, the mean income of UCSC’s first-generation freshman families was 60 percent less than that of non first-generation families.

“When I’m at high schools with students and their families, [the cost] usually comes up in the first five minutes of conversation,” McCawley said, “especially if I’m in a low-income area with a lot of first-generation students.”

Tuition concerns can be more deterring to first-generation low-income families than non first-generation low-income families because of their lack of familiarity with the college admissions system.

Kat Sayarath, a first-generation transfer student, discovered she wanted to go to university while she was in community college.

“[My parents] want me to be happy, but they have no knowledge of what higher education is like. I went to community college because I had no idea of what I wanted to do. I didn’t think my high school did a good job of preparing us at all.”

The UC system is currently engaging in extensive partnership and outreach programs with K-12 schools and community colleges across the state. These aim to encourage more schools to prepare their students for a four-year degree.

In addition to the programs, the UCs will expand their “Eligible in a Local Context” admissions pathway from the top 4 percent to the top 9 percent of high school classes this spring. The 9 percent benchmark, as established by the UC for each participating school, is a component of the pathway to guaranteed admission at a UC.

“We want to inform counselors, who influence students greatly, that this is a viable cohort of students that the university is interested in,” McCawley said. “We’ve decided we want to send an even broader message.”

A first-generation student’s struggle for higher education doesn’t end at admittance to college. Navigating the university’s academic planning formula can be a difficult shift, and many first-generation students feel uncomfortable speaking up about what they don’t know. Student retention remains a concern.

“The first two quarters were really rough,” Garcia said. “You’re first-generation and thrown into college and you’re expected to do really well at all these classes, and honestly, my high school education wasn’t that good.”

Both Sayarath and Garcia said student organizations like Engaging Education and the Academic Excellence Program helped them transition and establish themselves socially and academically on campus.

Representatives of the admissions office believe first-generation student enrollment will eventually settle, but for now, the university’s is aiming to inspire more first-generation students to earn a degree at UCSC.