The first in their families to attend a University (from left), Adriane Ceballos, James Whitcomb Jr., Dominic Robey and Andrew Yang found assistance as they became acquainted with Sacramento State. Now they carry their message of success to others. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

First-generation college students are trailblazers. They are role models to their siblings, and heroes to their parents and grandparents.

But when they first step onto a university campus, they often feel lost and overwhelmed.

“I wanted to set an example for my siblings,” said Andrew Yang, a Sacramento State recreation, parks and tourism administration major who is the first member of his family to attend college. “But I didn’t know what I was doing.

"My cousins didn’t go to college. My friends didn’t go to college. I had to figure it out on my own.”

Nearly a third of Sacramento State’s students identify as “first generation,” meaning that neither of their parents earned a university degree. Their stories are compelling and important, said Chao Vang, who helps lead many of the new and expanding initiatives within Sac State’s Student Academic Success and Educational Equity Programs (SASEEP.)

“We all have this shared experience,” said Vang, who was a first-generation college student and one of four in his family to graduate from Sac State. “I started to wonder, ‘How can I capture so many stories that are unique, but also have many things in common?’ ”

That question led Vang to launch a yearlong project in which SASEEP is documenting and highlighting the stories of “first gen” administrators, faculty members, staff and students at Sac State. The campaign’s title is “First, But Not Alone.”

Among those who sat for an interview during the fall semester was Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen.

Pursuing higher education while he was growing up poor on a small ranch in Montana “was never an intention, much less a dream,” Nelsen said.

“It’s hard to be the first person to go to college because you don’t know what it will be like, and your family back home doesn’t know either,” he told his student interviewer. Nelsen credited his then-girlfriend – and now his wife, Jody – for guiding him back into college after he had dropped out.

“It all starts with believing in yourself, believing that you can do it,” Nelsen said.

This summer, “First, But Not Alone” will shift its focus from administrators, faculty and staff to first-generation students. The stories are being published on the First Generation Institute webpage.

Students working on the project said Sac State’s academic and mentoring programs aimed at “first gens” put them on the path to success.

They include the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which offers admissions assistance, a special Sac State orientation session, academic advising, financial aid assistance, and course planning, among other services. The Full Circle Project is designed to improve graduation rates for traditionally underserved and first-generation students and prepare them for the working world. The DEGREES Project features peer advising, leadership training, and internships, among other opportunities.

Yang, whose father was 2 years old when his family moved to the United States from Thailand, said he feels the pressure of being his family's first college student.

In his Hmong culture, young men traditionally are expected to have children early and help provide for their extended families, he said. In part because he grew up in a Sacramento neighborhood plagued by violence and gangs, “my parents told me that I needed to go to college,” Yang said. “But they really didn’t know what it involved.”

Attending Sac State created culture shock, he said, but the EOP helped him adapt: He is succeeding academically and has encourage his younger siblings. One of Yang’s brothers followed him to Sac State, and a sister is attending UC Davis.

“I wish I could have read stories like mine” before enrolling in college, Yang said, “because at times, as a Hmong college student, I did feel alone.”

Dominic Robey, a communications major, grew up in an Oakland neighborhood where “most people didn’t go to college,” he said. “Manual labor, the Army or jail were the only options.”

Robey’s older brother, who enrolled in UC Davis after high school, was a motivating force, he said.

“Having that role model was extremely helpful,” Robey said.

Nonetheless, a University “can be very intimidating” to first-generation students, he said. “We’re sometimes reluctant to ask for help, but I learned that it’s something you have to do.”

The parents of Adriane Ceballos labored in Coachella Valley farm fields after they emigrated from Mexico, but they valued higher education and urged him to go to college, he said. This stood out because “the college mentality was just not there” among his friends and extended family.

When he decided to enroll at Sac State, they asked him, "Why? ... And why I was going so far away?” Ceballos said.

“For me as a first-generation student, college was a big unknown,” said Ceballos, who graduated in May with a degree in criminal justice. “I didn’t have anyone to guide me about how to manage my time, develop routines, or solve problems.”

The First Generation Institute helped him navigate university life, he said.

James Whitcomb Jr.’s parents both worked as correctional officers when he was growing up in Palmdale. They wanted him to go to college and obtain a degree, but he was mostly focused on becoming a professional athlete, he said.

“I didn’t really have a role model academically,” said Whitcomb, a sociology major. “I thought, ‘I have to go to college in order to play football.’ " His dream was to play in the NFL.

But with the highest level of professional football out of reach, Whitcomb began to realize the importance of earning a degree.

“I wanted to change the culture and do a little more than others in my family were able to do,” he said. “I wanted to really live life and experience different things.”

He sought out SASEEP, where he met and became friends with other “first-gen” students, and his comfort level on campus grew.

“There is something special about sharing your experiences,” Whitcomb said.

“I was able to see that other students had many of the same trials and obstacles that I had. I saw that it’s OK to learn as you go along, and that regardless of your background, anyone with a dream of college can achieve it.” – Cynthia Hubert