Like many incoming first years, Mindy Zhang is nervous about making friends at college. “It’s a little bit scary,” she admitted recently, wondering out loud if it’s true that “if you don’t fit in your college experience won’t be as good.”
Mindy, a 2015 Meritus Scholar and graduate of Lowell High, excelled in high school despite what she describes as “low expectations… because I’m the youngest [in my family] and a girl.” Powered by self-determination, she took rigorous classes, developed a passion for environmental science, and built her leadership skills through summer internships. She learned to view education as a privilege and promised herself that she would not allow anyone to limit her future success.
But as a first-generation college student, Mindy will face challenges that go beyond those of her better-resourced peers. When students are the first in their families to attend college, they often cannot rely on parental experience to help navigate tricky financial aid forms, guide course selection, or tap into alumni networks. Plus, as Meritus Program Manager Nicolas Rosa explains, “Colleges often have a ‘one size fits all’ model that fails to address the needs of first-generation students.”
Luckily, Mindy has a built-in support system. The personalized nature of the Meritus program ensures Scholars receive unique supports on their distinct pathways to graduation. At the recent Transition to College workshop, Mindy and her fellow Scholars perused course catalogs to create mock schedules, discussed academic resources to seek out on campus, and asked questions of a panel of upperclassmen. Tim Ranzetta, founder of Next Gen Personal Finance, provided training on personal budgeting and representatives from Google showed Scholars how to use their online tools.
Mindy was also able to get a preview of campus life at Cal Poly SLO’s Summer Institute, a month-long academic orientation program that seeks to ease the first-year transition through academic programs, social engagement, and opportunities to network with faculty and staff.
While Mindy was originally drawn to Cal Poly for the financial aid package and change of scenery, the summer program assured her that she’d made the right choice. “After my program at SLO this summer, I realized that this school is perfect for me, “ said Mindy, “Their motto is ‘Learn by Doing’ and I’ve always been a hands-on learner.” She relished the small class sizes and the opportunity to meet her classmates and teachers before the fall quarter begins.
Mindy also got a sneak peak at the challenges she will face as a college student. She discovered the balancing act that a rigorous academic schedule requires and reflected that “it’s hard to manage your budget and be social.” She also confronted the perils of the all-you-can-eat dining hall. “There were so many desserts and you can take as many as you want! That was a struggle,” she laughed.
When Mindy returns to campus this month, she will be taking 15 units toward an Environmental Management and Protection degree, though she hopes to switch to an Environmental Engineering major soon. She’s most excited about the career exploration classes she will be taking and is interested in getting involved in internships as soon as possible. “I really like internships because I feel like I get to see what I am learning come to life,” she explained.
As Meritus Scholars, Mindy and her 239 peers will have access to internship opportunities, career development resources, and individualized support systems that go beyond what’s available on their college campuses.
To help provide Meritus programming, or to sponsor a Scholar like Mindy, please visit our donation page here.