First-generation students join the Wildcat family

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Courtesy Victoria Navarro Benavidas | The Daily Wildcat

First Cats help welcome families to campus during the First Cats Family Welcome on Sept. 7, 2019. 

The first in their family to apply for a major university, to pack up their belongings and head to an unknown city, will also be the first in their family to graduate from the University of Arizona. 

A first-generation college student is typically defined as the first one in the family to attend college.

“First-generation college students are really resilient and have the capacity to be some of our strongest scholars and representatives of our institution," Victoria Navarro Benavides, the program manager for First Cats Initiatives, said. "It’s time for us to start believing that they’re worth our time and our energy and directing resources to supporting that.” 

  Karla Cruze-Silva, the manager for the Thrive Center's Wellness Initatives, closes out the night for families who attended the First Cats Family Welcome on Sept. 7, 2019.  

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According to Benavides, First Cats is a campus organization designed to help first-generation students get access to financial aid, graduate school and build a community for other students who are often underrepresented.

“The reason we developed [First Cats] is because the university has had years of support for trio-type grants, which are targeting first-generation, low-income and students with disabilities,” Benavides said. "As those grants have fluctuated throughout the years, we wanted to provide a more stable, institution-based system."

First Cats provides programs throughout the semester for incoming first-generation freshmen and their families, such as First Cat Mixer, First Cat Family Welcome and First Cat Wednesdays. They also host a professional development series that aims to help students build their professional skills for the workplace.

In addition, the program offers a mentor system where upperclassmen students assist First Cats freshmen with navigating classes, applying for financial aid and jobs in the future. Mentors can also help First Cats seniors look for grad school opportunities. 

Juan Fernando Figueroa, a UA senior criminal justice major, started his college journey as a First Cats mentee. He learned about First Cats through the Arizona Assurance Program, a financial aid program for low-income students in Arizona. 

“I had someone that I could come to for support, someone that has already gone through that first or second year, and guide me through those difficult times like that first exam feeling or preparation,” he said. 

First Cats not only provides a support system for the students, but also for the parents who may often feel the stress when their child is attending college. 

Juan Figueroa’s parents previously spoke on a panel for First Cats to help other new families, both parents and students, to transition into college life. 

“Some of the things we spoke about on the First Cats panel were related to the conversations we had with our student on how we could support [Juan Figueroa] as he started this journey and how we felt seeing our student leave to college," said Marcela Figueroa, Juan Figueroa's mother. "It was important for us to be in that panel because we had the opportunity to share our story and experiences with other parent who are beginning this journey."

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Marcela Figueroa shared the difficulties she encountered in enrolling her son in college.

“Some of the challenges we faced sending our student off to college was facing the fact that we would not see him throughout the entire day,” she said. “It was very difficult to find a balance between the time we had to spend with him.”

However, Marcela Figueroa said that she and her husband couldn't be more proud of their son.   

“Our reaction to hearing that our son had been accepted to the University of Arizona was one filled with great excitement, joy and pride," Marcela Figueroa said. "Seeing our only son and child take the first step towards a new path in his life was a feeling like no other. It made us feel very happy.”

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Juan Figueroa is also proud to attend university and explained his reason why.

“There’s a lot of pride within calling yourself a first-gen student," Juan Figueroa said. "I’m an only child, so for my parents, I’ll be the only child they’ll see graduate from a four-year institution. I’m obviously doing it for them. Give them back a little bit of what they’ve given me and also serve as a guidance to future generations in my family who want to go to college, or even future students here at the Thrive Center.” 

First Cats can be found on the lower level of the Nugent building in the Thrive Center. The next First Cats event is First Cats Wednesdays on Nov. 14 from noon to 1 p.m. and from 5-6:30 p.m. in the Nugent building, Room 13. For more information on First Cats, visit: https://thrive.arizona.edu/first-cats.

** Editor's Note: Per the First Cats website, A first-generation student is also defined as a student with parents who have completed a bachelor's degree outside of the United States (but not within the United States), or a student who has grown up homeless or in the foster care system.


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