Students from the LEAD Scholars program during LEAD week

Students from the LEAD Scholars program during LEAD week

Increasing our LEAD

Eighty-two percent of Santa Clara University's first-generation college students graduate in four years, compared with a national average of only 10 percent graduating in six years.

A program that serves Santa Clara University's first-generation college students has helped keep the graduation rate at an impressive 82 percent in four years, compared with 10 percent in six years nationwide.

At some colleges, the week before classes start is a quiet scene of anticipation. For many of Santa Clara University’s first-generation students, those seven days set them up for success for the next four years.

The week is known as “LEAD Week,” and it’s when 75 first-generation college students descend onto campus before the rest of their classmates arrive, to be welcomed by peer mentors, staff, and faculty who introduce them to the college experience. The week includes introductory classes, college-success workshops and small-group activities.

As the first in their families to attend college, LEAD scholars have often overcome incredible challenges to get into SCU -- but may not have learned from their families or high schools what college life will be like. LEAD Week and the LEAD program provide a vital bridge.

“It’s as if you are being adopted into another family,” said Jesus Mejia, a LEAD Scholar from San Jose now in his junior year at SCU. Unlike his high school in a lower-income neighborhood, attending SCU required study habits much beyond a night-before cram session -- along with knowing how to make the most of resources of the University.

While some first-generation students may stumble along and become alienated, those affiliated with the LEAD program at Santa Clara University find support at every turn from assigned LEAD mentors and peers, who typically remain their closest friends well beyond college.

Mejia says he knows of first-generation students at other schools who dropped out or transferred because they never felt comfortable or got over the culture shock. With LEAD, “having that instant connection really helps,” he said.

The program’s success is shown in the numbers: While nationwide, only 10 percent of first-generation college students graduate within six years, at SCU, 82 percent of LEAD scholars graduate within four years. That’s better than non-LEAD-participating first-generation students (77%) and SCU undergrads in general (80%).

When Mejia almost failed his first quarter of chemistry class, his mentor paired him with an ace chem student who was also a LEAD scholar. Another LEAD scholar from Jamaica was feeling profound guilt at leaving her family behind and found successful role models in others who had also left tight-knit – and not always understanding—families behind.

In addition to the close community, LEAD also offers two courses that serve as their college “home room:” a LEAD-only English class, which starts a week before regular classes, and a first-year college success seminar focused on the college transition, campus resources and leadership opportunities. The LEAD office maintains an “always open door” policy to help students navigate academic, personal and financial challenges.

Many LEAD scholars cite the relationships they forged at LEAD Week as their key lifeline.

“Everybody within LEAD looks out for one another,” said Kristyn Heath, a former LEAD scholar who now mentors others. When small-group chats turn up worries about deportation, family illness or poverty, “You get pretty close, pretty quick,” she said.

The program, which currently serves 60 freshmen and 15 transfer students, will be expanded, thanks to a recent $1.5 million grant from the Koret Foundation. The grant will enable LEAD to support 105 freshmen and 15 transfer students annually and add a second-year seminar to help bridge the difficult transition to junior year. It will also provide stipends for costly extracurricular experiences, like study abroad, that have a significant impact but are often unaffordable for LEAD students – 75% of whom receive Pell Grants and other financial aid to cover the bills.

This generous grant will ensure that more students not only stay on campus but thrive during their four years here.

As a Jesuit Catholic University, Santa Clara University’s mission centers around the importance of creating an inclusive and diversity community that works in service to humanity, and educates “the whole person.” The LEAD Scholars Program is one way in which SCU promotes these values, providing outstanding first-generation students the opportunity to change the course of their lives, their families’ lives and the broader society.

Added Alexandria Black-Davis, a LEAD alum who now mentors other students, “LEAD provides a foundation that gives you support in order to carry you through those four years.”