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First-generation students thrive at the C of I

The College of Idaho enrolls just over 1,100 undergraduates – and nearly one-third of them are first-generation college students.

“We attract them here because we’re successful at helping them graduate,” said Arnold Hernandez, the College’s director of multicultural affairs.

Most first-generation students don’t consider private colleges because of the perceived high cost, and many take longer than four years to earn their diplomas. But the C of I bucks both of those national trends with a thriving population of first-generation students – nearly 70 percent of whom graduate in four years.   

A caring campus community is a big reason the College attracts, retains and graduates first-generation students. Hernandez helps the students any way he can, from class work to personal and family issues to everyday problems like fixing a flat tire. He also visits families in their homes to share the opportunities available at the C of I – opportunities that can drastically alter their child’s future.

Two current sophomores, Ivan Esparza-Ruiz and Yasmin Pelallo, stand as testimonies to the difficulties and triumphs of being first generation students.

“It’s really hard,” Pelallo said. “I know it’s going to take a lot of work and tears, but this will prepare me. I don’t want to give up.”

Esparza-Ruiz is studying accounting, while Pelallo is pursuing a career in pediatric nursing.  As the first in their families to attend college full-time, both students are offering an example to their younger siblings that college is not only an option – it also is a rewarding pursuit.

“I’m going to encourage my kids to go to college,” Esparza-Ruiz said. “It’s the best investment in life.”

In addition to helping students, Hernandez keeps close contact with first-generation alumni who are established in professional careers, from teachers in China to representatives in Washington, D.C. These alumni bear witness to the College’s first-generation success, which was celebrated during the 2014 Scholarship Gala in Boise.

Student speaker Cristian Magallon told the Gala audience what a difference the College has made in his life, fulfilling the mission Hernandez and many others at the C of I are so passionate about.

“We have to let these students know they are important and help them believe that,” Hernandez said. “We have to reach them.”