Bridging the Gap: Students Welcome First-Gen High Schoolers Interested in UVA
Jessenia Castillo is many things; a high school junior, an excellent student and a first-generation student, meaning she would be the first in her family to go to college. She is also a diehard Wahoo fan and wants nothing more than to come to the University of Virginia.
A UVA student group, Hoos First Look, is helping. Castillo arrived at UVA in late October with 18 other high schoolers, most of whom would be first-generation students, for an all-expenses-paid orientation visit funded by current UVA students who come from similar backgrounds.
Hoos First Look raised thousands of dollars from the Jefferson Trust, the UVA Parent’s Fund and the Office of President (Jim Ryan is also a first-gen student) to enable them to pay for the high school students’ travel, lodging and food for a weekend packed with programming, including tips on how to fill out financial aid forms and write college essays.
On a sunny fall Friday morning, the visitors filed into the ballroom in Newcomb Hall for the kickoff as shafts of sunlight streamed into the building. While most of the high schoolers were from Virginia, several had traveled long distances. Castillo and another Floridian, Daniel Sanchez, boarded planes and arrived in Charlottesville to a warm welcome Thursday evening.
Sanchez, a student at West Boca Raton Community High School, is a physics and chemistry wiz. “Currently, I am taking AP Physics, and it’s my favorite class,” he said as welcome music blasted and his cohorts signed in for the weekend, collecting backpacks stuffed with UVA swag. “I’m looking forward to exploring the campus. That would be my main priority. And meeting new people,” he said.
Castillo traveled to Charlottesville from Miami, where she attends Miami Jackson Senior High School. Her love is studying math, and she hopes to go into business. She said she has long been interested in UVA and took a virtual tour created by the student-run University Guide Service. She later received an email from Hoos First Look saying she qualified for the program.
“I just gave it a shot,” she said with a broad grin on her face.
Castillo comes from a big family. Originally from the Dominican Republic, she has five brothers and two sisters. Her father Manuel died when she was in the eighth grade and her mother, Yaquelin Pinales, works as a chef.
“I want to really get a sense of what it would be like to come to this school,” she said. “That is something that would really be important to me; like feeling welcome and feeling like I have a place.”
If you listen to co-chair Brandon Thompson talk about Hoos First Look, it’s clear that creating a welcoming environment is exactly what the group aims to do. Thompson came to UVA four years ago on a Questbridge Scholarship, created to match talented low-income, first-generation students with schools around the country.
“If I didn’t have certain people along the way, there’s no guarantee that I would be where I am today."
A hard worker, Thompson said sometimes that’s just not enough for first-generation students to transition to college. “I realized that people are a huge part of getting to where you need to go. And for me, I want to be one of those people, long-term, that gets certain people where they need to go, because no one should be stifled in any opportunity that they want to pursue.”
The Hoos First Look welcome weekend was a UVA full-court press. It included representatives from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Student Financial Services; the Office of the Dean of Students; the UVA Career Center and the Office of Admission.
Kevin McDonald, UVA’s vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, welcomed the high school juniors to UVA that morning, first playing a video message former First Lady Michelle Obama recorded for first-generation students in the United States.
“I am so proud of you, because as a first-generation college graduate myself, I know it isn’t easy to get to this point,” Obama said.
In his remarks, McDonald echoed a statement made by Obama: to never forget that the high schoolers belong at college, and that when they arrive, they should find a community and professors who will support them. He also applauded Hoos Look First students for taking it upon themselves to create a welcoming program to potential students.
The weekend’s schedule included an admissions workshop; a Career Center game session, to help attendees identify their personal strengths and interests and set goals; and a Questbridge Scholars information session. Students also got to attend classes and hear from faculty.
On Saturday evening, the group enjoyed a dinner in the Garden Room Faculty and Staff Dining Room in Hotel E on the West Range of the Lawn. The meal was funded by the Seven Society; Claudrena Harold, a history professor and department chair whose research includes the history of black student activism at UVA, delivered a keynote address.
“Hoos First Look allowed me to feel one step closer to reaching my goal of attending the University,” Castillo said. “Walking through Grounds made me really feel the sense of community and school pride radiating from not only the student body, but the community as well.
“This campus visit made me more excited to apply to the University of Virginia. The University remains my No. 1 choice and now, more than ever, I’m going to continue to meet every goal I have for myself and continue to prepare for the application process come senior year.”
Thompson said the weekend was a huge success. “Looking back on it, this year went so well in many ways. From student engagement to great experiences, for back-to-back years, it has been the most rewarding thing I've done during my time at UVA. I believe all the students benefited from being here, and I certainly appreciated having the opportunity to lead some of their advising for their college search.”
Now, he and his co-chair, Joanna Lee, both fourth-year students, are working on a succession plan for Hoos Look First, which was founded in 2017 and brought its first group of high schoolers to Grounds last fall.
Looking ahead “is going to be a large focus of my and Joanne’s work for the rest of the academic year, to make sure we find some avenue so this program can be funded in 2020” and beyond, he said.