Cal State Fullerton Stands as a National Model for First-gen Student Success

Martha Enciso, Elizabeth Zavala-Acevez, California State University, Fullerton / The Center / March 15, 2023

Group of first-gen students with first-gen program shirts at California State University, Fullerton

California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) has established itself as a national model for improving the experiences and outcomes of first-generation college students. Leveraging resources available to implement strategic first-gen initiatives, Cal State Fullerton has supported this student population in meaningful ways and ensured student success.

In recent years, the university has uplifted first-gen identified students academically and professionally. One impactful program that has made this possible is the Career Center's I Am First program. In fact, the Career Center recently received the Career Services Excellence Award for large schools from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). I Am First was recognized for demonstrating excellence in career services best practices. The main objectives of I Am First consist of facilitating an asset-based approach mindset and fostering a sense of community for students among their first-gen peers and the campus community. Additionally, the program consists of three missional pillars: 1) Empower by providing tools and resources, 2) Explore through mentorship from first-generation alumni and engaging sessions, and 3) Execute by utilizing networking opportunities and a career roadmap.

While I Am First is focused on supporting students, it also helps address goals within the Cal State Fullerton and Division of Student Affairs strategic plan. The university strategic plan has a specific goal focused on strengthening opportunities for student completion and graduation as well as eliminating equity gaps. I Am First program supports those efforts by offering mentorship, guided sessions for students focusing on self-reflection, and high-impact experiences around building social capital. Since Spring 2020, the Career Center has hosted eight I Am First cohorts serving over 300 students. I Am First alumni have shared the program's impact on their growth.

The main objectives of I Am First consist of facilitating an asset-based approach mindset and fostering a sense of community for students among their first-gen peers and the campus community.

“I Am First has increased my confidence in the professional world,” said one student. “I now know that success is set to follow! Through this program I have discovered how to improve my innate skills and how to acquire new ones! The insight I have gained as a result of this program is invaluable to my future career and professional fulfillment in the Human Services field!”

First-gen support staff at California State University, Fullerton

Another student shared the following: “The I Am First program has helped me to learn more about myself and it has also helped me to become more confident while reaching out to professionals that work in the field that I want to go into.”

Cal State Fullerton has also helped build community for first-generation students in other ways. After all, the university is responsible for educating thousands of Orange County students who are the first in their families to attend college. For instance, CSUF hosts National First-Generation College Student Week, faculty and staff support programs, and events and seminars helping students establish networks and navigate higher education. Programs such as Abrego Future Scholars, the California State University’s Educational Opportunity Program, and the federally funded TRIO Student Support Services have played central roles in supporting first-gen students. I Am First-I Am An Artist, which is a more recent extension of I Am First, has contributed to first-gen student support as well. I Am First-I Am An Artist, is a specialized campus program tailored to support students pursuing degrees from the College of the Arts.

Since 2021, the Division of Student Affairs at CSUF has led first-gen initiatives and programming efforts on campus. According to CSUF’s Office of Assessment and Institutional Effectiveness, 31.7% of the university’s 40,000+ students are first-generation, making first-gen programming and resources an institutional imperative.

For more information on California State University, Fullerton's approach, please visit their website here.