Portland Community College launches program to build strong foundation for first-generation students

By Tiffany Camhi (OPB)
July 7, 2024 1 p.m.

PCC is preparing to start a program this fall aimed at supporting more students who are the first in their families to attend college.

For many first-generation college students, their first year at a college or university can be make or break. These students, who are the first in their families to pursue a higher education, often lack the generational experience of college that their peers have. That lack of familiarity with higher education institutions can lead some of these students to drop out of school.

A new pilot program at Portland Community College is looking to address this issue head-on.

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A sign reads "Portland Community College."

A Portland Community College sign is pictured in Portland, Ore., May 16, 2016.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

PCC’s First-Year Experience — or FYE — aims to foster a sense of community and belonging for first-generation students who enroll straight out of high school. The program is set to launch with its first cohort of students this fall.

Mson Gongora, 22, is the first person in his family to continue his education after high school.

“It’s not easy going to college as a first-year and first-generation student, especially if you don’t have any kind of help,” said Gongora, a recent graduate of Portland Community College.

This spring, Gongora earned two associate degrees from PCC; one in science and the other in general studies. He said extra support from mentors provided by the school’s Future Connect Program helped guide him through rough patches he experienced at PCC.

“If I ever missed an assignment or if I ever struggled, they would ask me personally, like, ‘Are you ok?’” said Gongora. “They are invested in you and your future. They want you to succeed, which, I think, is what’s most beneficial.”

The new FYE program hopes to build on the successes of Future Connect, which launched in 2011 and pairs a scholarship with one-on-one mentoring for first-generation students.

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Any incoming student who self-identifies as first-generation and who graduated from high school this spring will be eligible to join FYE’s pilot year. Josh Laurie, PCC’s Senior Director of College Success Programs, is expecting the first cohort to include about 1,500 students.

“We want folks to have a good experience and to share that experience with their community and feel that the college is invested in them,” said Laurie. “ We just have to work hard to make sure that happens early on in their college experience.”

PCC is Oregon’s largest post-secondary institution, but like many colleges across the country, it lost enrollment during the pandemic. It has struggled to regain students since then. There have been modest gains over the past few years, but PCC’s total student headcount is still down about 15% from the 2019 to 2020 academic year, when the college had more than 60,000 students. This is paired with a national decline of first-generation and low-income students completing degree programs at community colleges, said Laurie.

Laurie is hoping the new program can boost those numbers and support students on their higher education journey.

“If we do nothing, those rates will probably stay the same,” said Laurie. “And while we have a lot of resources on all of our campuses, accessing those is not easy when you’re navigating a large institution.”

The pilot program will phase in over the next three years, expanding to serve more students each year. Laurie expects FYE to include every incoming PCC student straight out of high school, regardless if they are first-generation, by the end of the three-year phase-in period.

PCC designed the program to support students in three ways. First, students will be paired with an FYE coach or PCC staff member who will act as a mentor and guide them through their first year of college. Then mentors and other FYE staff will notify students of community-building events and resources via periodic text messages. The program will be rounded out through a series of online trainings intended to help students connect with other PCC student resources and clubs.

The program will cost about $500,000 a year to operate, according to Laurie. A one million dollar gift from philanthropist Bridgid Flanigan provided the primary source of funding to kickstart the new initiative. FYE also relies on funding from a federal grant and financial support from the PCC Foundation.

In its current iteration FYE does not include a scholarship, which is a key difference from its sister program, Future Connect. Laurie is hoping PCC will be able to provide FYE scholarships in the coming years. But first the program has to prove itself.

Gongora, who now works for PCC’s Future Connect program, said he is excited that more PCC students will have access to the support he got when he was a student.

“I am lucky to be given a coach, but a lot of students aren’t,” said Gongora. “That’s why FYE is really important because now we can extend that to every first-year student.”

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