An education mentor program serves first gen students in all the right ways.
When Jean Carlos Moreno ’26 started at TCNJ in the fall, he found a mentor and fast friend in Kiara Fernandez ’24. Like Moreno, Fernandez was from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and had an interest in urban education. Both are first generation students — pioneers in their families — forging a pathway from college admission to graduation. And both know how overwhelming it can feel stepping into this unfamiliar world.
“Being first generation, it is easy to feel like you’re learning everything on your own,” says Moreno, whose parents are from Mexico and Peru and are unable to offer him much guidance regarding the U.S. college experience. Moreno feels lucky he’s able to lean on Fernandez, a junior majoring in English and urban secondary education, who has helped him with things like scheduling classes and alerting him to campus resources. She often texts him just to check in. “It is nice to have a close connection — someone who is pursuing the same career path and who understands what I’m going through,” says Moreno.
Fernandez is happy she can help Moreno find his footing. She remembers her path to college and the conflicting emotions she felt. Her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, encouraged her to go to college and celebrated her many accomplishments along the way. Fernandez applied to 10 colleges, figuring out the endless requirements on her own, and was accepted to all of them. But once she landed at TCNJ, she realized she wasn’t sure what came next. Like many first generation students, the goal her family had set was to get into college, with little talk or plan of how to actually get through the next four years and into her chosen career. “I felt 100% lost,” says Fernandez about understanding the nuances of financial aid, choosing her first-year classes, and networking within her field.
“College offers opportunities and experiences my parents never had,” she says. “I’m afraid of messing up. I carry a world of dreams on my shoulders — my mom’s, my dad’s, and my own.”
“The process of adjusting to college can be complex for first generation college students,” says Nadya Pancsofar, professor of early childhood and special education. “It can be an isolating and stressful experience. And when college is stressful, it starts to feel like it’s not the right fit.”
According to a 2017 National Education Association research brief, the majority of teacher preparation program graduates skew white, middle class, and female. Pancsofar believes first generation students play a critical role in increasing representation in the teacher workforce. To get there, they need spaces where they can connect, become leaders, and celebrate their unique perspectives. “College is the right fit for these students. And being a teacher is right too,” she says.
The pairing of first-year student Moreno to upperclassman Fernandez was not a coincidence but, rather, the result of Pancsofar’s efforts to create a peer-to-peer mentoring program, known as the ROSCOE (Resources, Opportunities, Support, and Collaboration for Equity) Educators program, specifically for first generation education majors.
First generation students (who make up about one-third of the TCNJ student population) have access to an array of well-established advising, tutoring, and mentoring programs at the college. Many of these services are provided through TCNJ’s Center for Student Success and the Educational Opportunity Fund.
“We support students in a variety of ways so that they succeed as a whole person,” says Jamal Johnson, CSS senior assistant director for mentoring and retention. Johnson and his team engage students not only in programs for academic success but also in leadership opportunities; goal-setting seminars; and workshops for time management, study skills, and test-taking strategies. “We want them to develop as humans, as learners, and as members of the TCNJ community,” he says.
These programs, says Johnson, “certainly cater to the needs of first generation college students.” But they are not exclusively for those students. Nor are they only for education majors.
That’s where Pancsofar stepped in. With input and guidance from Johnson and other staff experts in student success, she proposed a mentor program expressly for first gen education majors. “It’s not possible for the folks in the Center for Student Success to be experts in all of the different academic areas and all of the different professions students may go into,” she says. “There is a lot for students to navigate, especially in the School of Education, where most are dual majors.”
Lizzeth Jaramillo ’23, a speech pathology major, helped Pancsofar with the initial research for the ROSCOE Educators program. A first gen student herself, Jaramillo understood the benefits a mentoring program specifically geared to education majors could provide. She recalled asking another student once which advisor had helped him put together his undergraduate plan. To her surprise, he shared that his parents did it for him. “I never realized how different my experience was to that of people whose parents had reached higher education,” Jaramillo says.
Together, Pancsofar and Jaramillo conducted 20 in-depth interviews with first generation students. Based on the research, Jaramillo created a definition to reflect the diversity within the first generation identity.
A first gen student is someone who is the first in a family to go to college. But it also can include students who may have minimum exposure to four-year college experiences, such as those who only have a sibling who went to college or those whose parents completed college in another country or later in life.
Several themes emerged from those interviews: Students were proud to be the first in their families to attend college but felt tremendous pressure to succeed; they had the drive to do well but, at the same time, doubted their abilities; and they sometimes had difficulty connecting culturally with others on campus.
“We got this little snapshot of what students experience, and those themes informed the way we designed the program,” Pancsofar says.
Pancsofar was careful to build from what had already existed at the college. “We didn’t want to be redundant or to over-mentor,” she says.
The ROSCOE Educators program pairs first-year mentees with upperclass mentors who are in the same department within the School of Education as much as possible. This helps the pairs bond as they talk about classes, professors, and experiences they have had. Each student also gets one-on-one meetings with faculty mentors to explore college, career, and personal issues.
Fernandez, who has also had mentorships in the EOF program, views ROSCOE as one more avenue to help her succeed. “It adds yet another bridge,” she says. “It connects students with professors within the program early on.”
Jaramillo believes the intimacy of the student and faculty mentors sets the program apart from other mentoring programs that she has been a part of. “There are multiple points of connection and ways students can communicate so they don’t feel overwhelmed or lonely,” she says.
“It’s nice to have a community away from home,” says Fernandez.
A key component of the program is an accompanying course that meets twice a month. Each one-hour session covers a specific topic, including financial aid, mental health, and networking.
Moreno says he appreciates the program’s financial resources, noting that in high school, he missed this type of information because it was often offered after school, when he, like many first gen students, had to head to his job or go home to take care of his younger sibling. In one ROSCOE session, he learned about a scholarship program for third and fourth-year students he hopes to take advantage of. “If I didn’t take this class, I would have no knowledge of that,” he says.
“We’re able to meet the requests of what our students want to know,” says Pancsofar. Faculty members have led information sessions about study-abroad opportunities specific to the teaching profession, and Pancsofar has brought in alumni to talk about what the student-teaching experience was like for them.
“The ROSCOE program really enriches what we do,” says Johnson, who compares it to similar school-specific mentoring programs in nursing and business. “We deal with the development of the person. They deal with the development of the profession,” he says.
“They’re going to be good teachers,” says Pancsofar. “What I’m hoping is that they’re going to be more confident and more apt to embrace leadership opportunities and that they will continue on to advanced degrees at higher rates.”
“ROSCOE has helped me become a well-rounded student,” says Fernandez. “When I become an educator, I want to take what I have learned and apply it to my classroom and to my own students.”
“We have such talented and motivated first generation college students,” says Pancsofar. “This is just the beginning.”
Picture: Peter Murphy