First Gen Success Story: Rafael

First-generation college students – those who are the first in their immediate family to attend college – now comprise more than one-quarter of Dominican University of California undergraduates. Each year, incoming first-gen students are invited to join the Torch Student Success Program, a powerful multi-year campus program created to cultivate leadership, develop community, and promote academic success.

Meet Rafael Vilches ’21

As a high school senior searching for a college, Rafael cast his net wide. He applied to many schools throughout California and, while impressed by the wide range of opportunities at Dominican, was about to commit to another university.

Then, a phone call changed everything.

Knowing that Rafael was interested in science, Dr. Tyler Johnson, Associate Professor in the Department of Health and Natural Sciences, reached out to talk about what four years at Dominican would look like. Hands-on research in the lab would be a major part of that journey. 
Like all science majors at Dominican, Rafael would be able to begin working in the lab during his freshman year as part of the Research Methodology program. This laboratory experience gives students the advantage of knowing how to structure an experiment, use laboratory equipment, record results, analyze data, and present their findings for peer review.

“When I talked with Dr. Johnson, what interested me the most was the Research Methodology program,” Rafael recalls. “I learned that I could do research with professors, which is hard to do at a larger school. Dr. Johnson told me that working in the lab would give me many skills that are important to be a researcher.”

Three years later, Rafael is certain of two things: His future plans include working in a laboratory dedicated to investigating genetic mutations. And, he plans to pursue advanced degrees after earning his bachelor’s degree.

Rafael is particularly thankful that despite the many challenges presented by the pandemic, he has been able to work in the lab this semester as part of a general microbiology course with Dr. Obed Hernández-Gómez.

“This professor has been patient and valuable,” Rafael says. “As a biology student, being able to work in the lab is so important. I have honed many of the skills that I missed after the pandemic halted labs last spring.”

Rafael grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from Dozier-Libbey Medical High School in Antioch. Like many of his classmates, he applied to a wide variety of colleges and universities. Cost was a major factor in selecting a four-year university over a two-year college. Cal Grants and Pell Grants made it possible for Rafael to attend Dominican.


And, like many of his high school classmates, Rafael was nervous about starting college. He had heard from teachers and counselors that the transition to college was not easy.

The summer before his first semester, Rafael received another important phone call – an invitation to join the Torch Program. The program helped calm his nerves, especially as many of his future professors participated in the summer workshops.

“This eased the worry of having professors who would be really strict,” Rafael says. “In high school, students are constantly warned about the rigor of university. The Torch taught me about balance and creating a schedule that would have intense classes as well as some that would be easier to handle.”

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