First-Generation Student Returns to Alma Mater to Provide Encouragement, Support

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This summer, first-year nursing student Cristy Lopez Mazariegos gained a head start on her academic journey in Dominican’s new Avanza summer bridge program. Now, only months after graduating from San Rafael High School, Cristy is working with first-year students at her alma mater, providing encouragement and support to help the students develop study skills, navigate high school, and strengthen their sense of belonging.

Cristy is already paying it forward.

“I’m really happy that I am giving back to my community,” Cristy says of her service-learning placement in a new program at San Rafael High School for students who struggled in middle school. 

It was experiences such as this and Dominican’s reputation for community engagement that drew Cristy to the university. 

“When I was a junior looking at colleges I heard about Dominican’s Service-Learning program and the work that the students do in the community,” she recalls. “I knew that I wanted to be in that program at Dominican.”

Remaining close to her family was another priority for Cristy, the middle child of three siblings. It was her mom, who worked in a pharmacy in Guatemala, who inspired Cristy to pursue a career in nursing.

“I grew up hearing my mom talk about her experiences caring for people, and that really made me want to become a nurse myself one day,” Cristy says. “As I got older I knew that I wanted to choose a major that would keep me active and on my feet — and that would also allow me to help others.”

Cristy is also studying for minors in Spanish and psychology. Psychology became an interest her sophomore year in high school when she took a psychology course at College of Marin.

However, the closer Cristy got to the beginning of her first year as a full-time college student, the more nervous she became. Imposter syndrome — the feeling that she did not belong in college — started to set in. For many first-generation students like Cristy, imposter syndrome is not an uncommon experience as they make the transition to college.

Shortly after high school graduation, Cristy received an email from Dominican inviting her to join the inaugural cohort of students in the Avanza program

Avanza is funded by Dominican’s $3 million La Vida Dominican Minority Serving Institution grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to improve educational outcomes for Spanish speaking students.  

Avanza’s focus is to provide a community of belonging and direct access to campus resources for students who are beginning their college journey. Its curriculum and programming centers the interests and cultural wealth of those who identify as Latinx, Black, Indigenous, first-generation, and students of color.

"As a first generation LatinX, being part of this program is a source of immense gratitude. I'm grateful for the chance to be part of a community that values diversity and inclusion,” Cristy says.

The program eased Cristy's fears and prepared her for the fall semester.

“I was pretty nervous to start at Dominican,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what was going to happen or how certain things would work out. As someone whose parents had not gone to college, I definitely had imposter syndrome.”

“When I got the email about Avanza and learned that it was a program for people of color and people who are first-generation students, then I thought it was something that sounded like a really good fit for me.”

In Avanza, Cristy found both community and an encouraging network. She particularly appreciated meeting with staff from the various departments across campus whose work is focused on student support and engagement. She enrolled in the “Navigating College” course led by Josué Castillo, the La Vida Dominican Student & Summer Bridge Program Coordinator and an Integrative Coach.

“In Navigating College, we talked a lot about imposter syndrome in the navigating college course – about how to deal with it and how to reach out for help.”

Castillo also encouraged the students in his course to join clubs and attend campus events. 

“He suggested we create a Google calendar and mark up all the student events,” Cristy says. “It was a great suggestion for me – as I am so schedule oriented. I love schedules!”

“Having the experiences in the Avanza program made me feel really supported and ready for Dominican,” Cristy adds. “I really appreciate that the support continues. If I have a question or a doubt, I just have to send an email to Mr. Castillo and I’ll get a quick reply. I realize I am not alone.” 

Photograph: Cristy Lopez Mazariegos and family celebrate Cristy's 2023 graduation from San Rafael High School.

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