Bulldog Bites

News and Views from the University of Redlands

Creating a community of support for first-generation students

Interim Director of Diversity Initiatives Monique Stennis (left) pins Jackie Gonzalez ’22 at the inaugural First-Generation Reception. (Photo by Coco McKown ’04, ’10)

The University of Redlands recently celebrated its first-ever First-Generation Reception. Javier Garcia ’20 welcomed the room of approximately 100 students who were the first in their families to go to college, stating, “Collectively, we are our own best resource.”  

University of Redlands President Ralph W. Kuncl kicked off the program by speaking about his humble upbringing in Los Angeles. His parents were blue-collar workers, and any surplus income went to food or was donated to the Church. Hand-me-down clothes and used cars were the norm.

“Your decision to be in college is changing your family’s legacy one degree at a time,” says Belinda Sandoval Zazueta, U of R associate vice president for admissions. (Photo by Coco McKown ’04, ’10)

“College applications were challenging,” Kuncl said, indicating his family was unable to help him with applications, financial aid, or decisions such as whether or not to live on campus. While also accepted to Yale and Stanford, he ultimately attended Occidental College for financial reasons.

Kuncl, who said he became a university president to support students, hoped that college campuses such as Redlands can become a place for students to learn, develop, and mature to unlock their “potential for social mobility through hard work.”

Belinda Sandoval Zazueta, U of R associate vice president for admissions, delivered the keynote address. Zazueta brought her University of San Diego college graduation stole to the stage, saying “your decision to be in college is changing your family’s legacy one degree at a time.” She noted she not only earned her degree for herself, but also for her family, future family, and community around her.

Throughout Zazueta’s time in college, she acknowledged that, as a person of color, she overcame insincere comments from others. Rather than let these challenges become obstacles in the way of her degree, she became involved with groups like MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), where she developed her voice.

Zazueta stressed the importance of “finding community because it is the most powerful support system one can have.” She hoped that first-generation students can find a power within themselves and become a voice for the voiceless. “A community like ours,” Zazueta said, “means you don’t have to experience life alone.”

The last portion of the evening consisted of a symbolic lapel-pinning ceremony, led by Diversity and Inclusion Interim Director Monique Stennis. The students were pinned by designated “trailblazers,” first-generation U of R faculty and staff attending the event. “[The pins] represent family, community, and most importantly, your dreams,” Stennis said.

After the pinning ceremony, students discussed their stories with the trailblazer at their table. Chris Barnes, who works in Residence Life and Housing, spoke about the challenges of being raised by a single dad in South Central Los Angeles, including finding adequate financial support for college. Despite his acceptance into University of California (UC), Berkeley, and UCLA, he committed to Santa Monica City College because that was all that he could afford. He later transferred to University of Kansas on a full scholarship.

Many students left the event with an increased sense of belonging and appreciation. “The first-generation reception made me feel proud and part of a community that is very close,” said Zharit Brand Robles ’23. “The fact that university acknowledges us this much is something really special to me.”

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