“Sit in the front row,” he was instructed at orientation. “Make eye contact with your professor.”

Harwood Garland grappled with that seemingly simple advice. In Iraq, he had learned to keep his back to a wall and let no one get behind him. Not until the middle of his first year at UCI did Garland begin feeling more comfortable. He realized, “I’m in Irvine now. It doesn’t get any safer.”

By his second year, he had made his way to the front row. But the culture shock continued. The students to his left and right all appeared to be the children of doctors, accountants and other degreed professionals. The son of a construction worker, Garland felt out of place.

“It seemed like they’d been told they belonged at the front their whole lives,” recalls the 29-year-old, who adapted, graduated in June with a B.A. in anthropology in the top 1 percent of his class and is now studying at UCI for a master’s in medicine, science & technology studies. Garland, a decorated U.S. Navy and Marine Corps medic, is aiming to be a doctor. From working-class Fontana, he’s the first in his family to attend college.

Garland is part of a major demographic shift on campuses. Half of UCI’s undergraduates are, like him, first-generation university students.

This fall, Garland is mentoring freshmen “who are looking to climb that mountain” – as he describes the college experience – as part of the First Generation First Quarter Challenge. The pilot peer-to-peer mentoring program is one of numerous efforts to help UCI’s largest class ever – about 9,000 new undergraduates – succeed.

Harwood Garland
Harwood Garland ’16, a decorated U.S. Navy and Marine Corps medic, is the first in his family to attend college. Now pursuing a master’s degree in medicine, science & technology studies at UCI, he plans to become a physician and is a mentor in UCI’s new First Generation First Quarter Challenge. Steve Zylius / UCI

A key promise of the University of California is that if you’re bright and willing to work hard, you can get the finest education in the world, regardless of your background. UCI boosted admission of in-state freshmen by 15.6 percent for this fall and community college transfer students by 27.3 percent. The new class is the strongest ever academically too – the mean grade point average of admitted California residents was 4.10. UCI has the nation’s highest percentage of student recipients of federal Pell grants – more than the entire Ivy League – and they have a 90 percent graduation rate – even higher than the campus as a whole.

“The word is out: UCI is a first-choice school for talented students of all backgrounds,” says Chancellor Howard Gillman, himself a first-generation college graduate who earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in political science at UCLA. “We have created an extraordinary incoming class.”

The UC system has long been an engine of social mobility, educating a workforce and creating critical thinkers to play key roles in a democracy, says Chicano/Latino studies professor Anita Casavantes Bradford, who began designing the new First Quarter First Generation Challenge mentoring program last year.

Casavantes Bradford, herself the daughter of a single mother on welfare, remembers nagging hunger, along with the realization by age 8 that even though no one in her family had done it, she could be a scholar.

“It’s important that students who are smart and committed but might be lacking in social and cultural capital get a chance to come to universities … to learn to make arguments, to clarify their thinking and their values,” she says. “It’s not just about making a living, but about sitting on school boards, seeking public office, and making policy and law.”

For many, the college journey still begins by packing up their car after high school graduation, kissing their parents good-bye and moving into a dorm to begin four years of newfound freedom, says social sciences dean Bill Maurer, who funded the new mentoring program. But he sees many others juggling heavy demands of classes with jobs and family responsibilities. Long gone are the hefty state subsidies that meant UC tuition was free or a few hundred dollars.

Students helping students

Monica Rodriguez, 22, now a fifth-year student, has a long commute to and from campus, taking four buses daily. She crams in as many classes and other activities as she can, including studies, work and family.

Rodriguez struggled her initial semester, earning her first C after a lifetime of top grades. But she didn’t let one grade discourage her and pushed forward. This fall, through the challenge program, Rodriguez is mentoring five brand-new social sciences majors who, like her, are the first in their families to attend a four-year college. Time management is critical, she says, and students need to learn to say no. She personally decided to drop out of two clubs her first year to work on bringing her grades up. Relying on her own experience, Rodriguez will help her mentees set weekly agendas and closely monitor their progress.

“I’m going to tell them the truth,” she says. “Be excited. Use all the energy and tenacity you have to confront whatever you might or might not face. You’re capable of confronting it.”

Research by the University of Wisconsin for the National Institutes of Health has shown that first-generation students in particular can face a tough time their first semester in classes like biology, with grades dipping. Feeling isolated or “different” can be a temporary bump or it can spiral into a sense of failure and lead students to drop out. Sometimes, misguided professors may advise them to not pursue “tough” science or technology paths.

Findings in the prestigious journal Science have shown, however, that quick, properly timed validation exercises for minority students can make all the difference. The first-generation challenge program has adapted those results, pairing small groups of freshmen with upper-year classmates, all the first in their families to attend college. They meet weekly for carefully designed workshops or to eat lunch and just talk.

“This is students helping students, and they can offer a very special type of wisdom and resources in a high-pressure situation,” says Davin Phoenix, assistant professor of political science and co-director of the program. “That’s what’s so exciting.”

The mentors are a microcosm of the campus: Mexican American, Middle Eastern, European American, Filipino and Brazilian Korean, a DREAM Act immigrant, a military veteran and others. They spent last year working with faculty to build a solid program based on their own experiences.

“We want to provide scaffolding, both academic and social, to ease the transition and to hopefully help students with their first-quarter grades, so there isn’t an extreme drop that requires them to spend the next year or two recovering,” says Casavantes Bradford. The pilot program for 50 freshmen and five mentors was full by midsummer, and Maurer hopes to scale it up next year.

Confidence counselors

Coping with stress is a key topic.

Born in Brazil, Ester Kim and her family were granted permanent residency in California when she was 13. With parents from Korea, she straddles several cultures. Kim, 25, who is naturally reserved, says she suffered social anxiety when she arrived at UCI.

“I was so nervous,” Kim says. “I didn’t know how to study at a university. I didn’t know how to talk to people. It was nerve-wracking.”

“My biggest fear was that I wasn’t going to make friends,” she adds.

Academic and mental health help were critical, she says. Kim, who has won a prestigious internship in Washington, D.C., this fall, feels so strongly about the mentoring program that she is Skyping in to help. She doesn’t shy away from telling hesitant undergraduates to reach out to campus counselors.

“It’s a resource that everyone should use,” Kim says. “Our tuition actually pays for it.”

In her case, she learned from counseling that “I am not crazy; this is totally normal. Having a professional person tell you means so much more.”

She says of the freshmen, “I want to help them gain the confidence that I was able to find.”

Forging social bonds

Fifth-year student Freddy Cruz, 22, was overjoyed when he was admitted to UCI, his No. 1 choice. He grew up in West Los Angeles, the son of a carpenter and a nanny who worked for wealthy Brentwood families. His mother, forced to quit school in sixth grade, inspired him not only to attend college, but to study political and social movements.

After completing two years at Santa Monica community college, he felt ready for greater academic challenges. Cruz lived off campus his first quarter, biking miles to class through heat and cold. His roommates were into partying, while he “cherished” the opportunity to study. Cruz kept his grades high but felt completely alone. He wondered if he’d made a giant mistake.

But a different mentoring program geared for transfer students helped Cruz realize he belonged at UCI. He was awed by a first-generation student who successfully handled work, clubs and classes. “In my mind, I got that image that if she did it, I could do it,” he says. She told him about a live-in research boot camp that he enrolled in his second summer. Through that experience, Cruz developed tight-knit bonds with his boot camp roommates.

Now Cruz wants to help freshmen the way he was helped. “We each have social capital we can share,” he says. “Everyone brings something to the table.”

Reaching out to faculty

First-generation students often keep their heads down, notes Casavantes Bradford. Many learned early on to avoid trouble – and that staying after class to talk to the teacher or principal meant they’d done something wrong. A crucial part of the challenge program is teaching them about office hours.

Garland, the military veteran, agrees. He advises his mentees to find the courage to talk to faculty and suggest ways to develop those relationships. For Garland, meeting UCI chemist Don Blake and trustee and eBay chairman Thomas Tierney, both military veterans, was a big boost. Networking can lead to opportunities – he completed five paid research internships as an undergraduate. It’s also at the heart of the ancient Socratic educational experience – professors working with small groups of students.

He explains how, despite jitters, he approached renowned physicist Roger McWilliams.

“I went up to him after class, and, man, he looked the part. He had on a tweed jacket and a tie, and I thought, ‘Yes, I have arrived at UCI! This is a real professor!’” Garland recalls. “I said, ‘Good afternoon, professor. This is my first class at a university.’”

When McWilliams looked at him “kind of weirdly,” Garland says he thought, “I’m an idiot. He’s taught thousands of kids. He doesn’t have time for me.”

Instead, McWilliams said, “Well, welcome” and became an early support system. Garland was impressed by how McWilliams used Shakespearean sonnets to illustrate the eloquence of physics equations. Garland, who’d spent more time cleaning pools as a teen to earn money than reading, bought the shortest book of sonnets he could find and began diagramming them himself. He now devours books. One recent read: Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Garland also asked McWilliams if he should join a fraternity.

“He didn’t tell me what to do,” Garland relates. “He just said, ‘As long as you join the fraternity of the curious and the hardworking, you’ll be fine.’ I live by those words.”