Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Helping Diversity Feel at Home

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Helping Diversity Feel at Home

Article excerpt

MAHWAH -- College students from low-income communities and immigrant families may struggle to pay for school, to catch up academically and to adjust to an environment far different from where they grew up.

But peer support, mentoring and financial aid can help them succeed and become role models back in their home communities, said college leaders, professionals and students gathered for a conference at Ramapo College on Friday.

Speakers and participants at the 15th annual Diversity Issues in Higher Education Conference talked about challenges those students face, but they also highlighted success stories and strategies that have helped improve opportunities and inclusiveness.

"If you are first-generation coming in, it's obvious that you need cultural navigators to show the students the way to be successful," said Christopher Catching, assistant vice president of student affairs at Southern Connecticut University. Catching, who grew up in Newark, said he got encouragement along the way from advisers and mentors, eventually earning his doctorate from New York University.

He noted that many students from low-income, urban school systems come to college without the basic educational skills they need and must take remedial classes before they can start regular courses. Support programs, he said, are key to narrowing the gap, improving their graduation rates and motivating students to continue.

But students need more than academic support: For many, entering college can feel like a culture shock.

"When I came in the fall, it was like someone had flipped a switch. It was completely white. I felt like it was a different situation," said Yovanna Garcia, a Ramapo senior from Passaic who was the first in her family to graduate from high school.

Garcia, whose family came from Mexico, said she was motivated to stay at college because of financial support and connections she made through the Educational Opportunity Fund, a program that helps low-income students who are college-capable but lack the right preparation. …

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