The Torch Shines Light on First-Gen Student Success
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.
The program begins with a first-year Summer Bridge Program and continues to support students throughout their time at Dominican through seminars, workshops, and social events.
The program was created in 2012 by Civil Rights icon Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals, then Chair of Dominican’s Department of Communications and Media Studies, as a way to help students reach their goals through education, leadership, and ongoing mentoring. Today the Torch Program is run by a team of Student Life professionals and a dedicated cohort of Torch mentors.
Meet some of this year’s Torch participants and mentors:
Michelle Chang ’24
Michelle had many options during her college search.
“I wanted to choose a school that would offer academic rigor and substantial financial support,” she recalls. “I was leaning toward UCLA or Cal Poly SLO, but ultimately I wanted to be part of a school where I got the attention and help I needed in order for me to become an outstanding applicant for medical school.”
A family member, a hiring manager at a tech company, gave her some great advice.
“He said that most of the people he hires were from a small private school and were stronger applicants than people who attended a larger school.”
At San Francisco’s Mercy High School, Michelle was part of a program for first-generation students called College Track. Through College Track she learned about a special scholarship opportunity for students to attend a private college.
“My mentor in College Track pushed me to look into different schools and opportunities, and that's how I found Dominican,” Michelle says. Her Mercy High School counselors urged her to apply, saying Dominican would be a good fit.
“I was lucky enough to be the recipient of the full-tuition College Track scholarship, which crucially impacted my college decision,” Michelle says. “This scholarship made it possible to attend a private institution that supports and guides students to success.”
Michelle is on Dominican’s pre-medical track, majoring in Biology with double minors in Chemistry and Health Humanities. She hopes to attend medical school and become a surgeon.
“I decided to choose Biology because I'm fascinated with the creation and process of life,” she says. “My minors in chemistry and health humanities encompass my passion for writing and math.”
After her positive experiences in College Track, Michelle was happy to accept an invitation to join the Torch Program. Despite carrying a full academic load in high school, complete with six AP classes, she was initially worried about the transition from high school to college. The summer pre-orientation helped calm her nerves.
“I was introduced to a mock lecture then was given really good advice and support on how to succeed in college. It has really helped.”
Michelle appreciates the bonding experiences provided by the Torch Program, including the weekly workshops focused on different topics, from academics and beyond. And, despite COVID-19 presenting new challenges, there are still opportunities to have fun and connect.
“The week before Halloween, we were all sent little clay pumpkins to decorate. We all made up a backstory and shared our pumpkins. Bonding activities like these truly make up the Torch experience,” she says.
“We're all comfortable and supportive of one another, and that’s a great feeling to have and share. I have people I can talk to and rely on in any situation. It’s like having a second family.”
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,” says Rafael. “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.”
Angelica Gonzalez Almanza, ’23
Angelica loves literature. English was her favorite subject while attending Vintage High School in Napa. And, it was her English teacher who encouraged her to check out Dominican.
“My English teacher suggested that I should apply because he believed that Dominican was the best fit for me,” she recalls. “He was not wrong.”
“I gave thought to what he was saying. After all, he had taken the time to get to know me as a person and he had a college-level education. I scheduled a campus tour and immediately fell in love with the campus.”
Angelica is majoring in Global Public Health with a minor in Community Action and Social Change. Her goal is to pursue a career in public health – a career that will allow her to help others. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health and then a PhD in epidemiology. “I hope that I will be able to work at the county level to implement policies that will overall improve the health of the public.”
Just as she hopes to help others, she also appreciates the support she has received both before and during college. She joined AVID in middle school and remained involved with the college readiness program all the way through high school.
“Being a first-generation Mexican American student I received the guidance of my AVID teacher and my high school English teachers to help me apply to college as well as writing my letters of recommendation. Furthering my education was always a goal that I wanted to achieve.”
Already familiar with the many benefits offered by student success programs, Angelica was happy to be invited to join the Torch Program. She credits the program for helping her branch out of her comfort zone during her first year at Dominican.
“Being in the program allowed me to push my social skills to the limit. As an introvert, I was extremely shy about making friends and starting college especially knowing that I would be the first one in my family to get a college education.”
The program also helped her develop leadership skills, connecting Angelica with campus leaders.
“I remember when we were doing the campus involvement seminar and thinking I want to be like them,” she recalls. “I know I want to make a change on campus and continue to build connections with others.”
The seminar gave Angelica the confidence to run for the ASDU freshman senator position, which was the beginning of her impressive involvement on campus. Today she is ASDU’s Director of Programming, EDJE Fellow, a member of the Siena Leadership Team, and Torch mentor.
Serving as a Torch mentor allows Angelica to give back to the program that helped shape her Dominican experience. “I want to provide help to other students who don't have the background on how to navigate college.
While the Torch staff organize the seminars and presentations, the Torch mentors oversee the fun activities for their mentees. So far they have hosted game nights and a pumpkin painting social.
“I don't think my Dominican experience would be the same if I had not attended this program,” Angelica says. “I am beyond grateful for the Torch Program and the community that I was able to build for myself with the guidance of Torch.”
Fernanda Galo Reyes ’24
Fernanda received some good advice from her family during her college search.
“They said, ‘Remember, choose what is right for you, not for us.’”
Fernanda took this advice to heart, spending many hours during her senior year at Napa High School researching which college would be right for her. She met with college representatives, talked with admissions counselors, and learned all about financial aid.
One university stood out among the many she was considering – largely because of its personal touch.
“When it was time to send my application, I sent it to Dominican University of California because I had a feeling that it was the one,” she says.
“Dominican’s admissions counselors are extremely sweet and very kind. They make you feel welcome and loved. They also make you feel part of the Dominican community. The financial aid staff was extremely helpful, patient, and kind.”
That support has continued, largely thanks to the Torch Program.
“I really love all the presentations they present, and I feel like everything they give us will help us in our college life. They give us amazing information and advice to be a better student and person.”
The Torch Program also has helped with the social adjustment to college.
“I knew that being part of the program meant being part of a college family that was going to be there for you in your easiest and toughest times,” she says. “I am so glad I joined the Torch Program because it also gave me the confidence I needed to make friends, including outside our Torch community.”
Fernanda is majoring in Chemistry with the goal of eventually working as a trauma surgeon. Her minors are History and Global Public Health. The weekly Zoom sessions with her Torch community is helping her feel connected while working remotely this semester.
“I love how we always learn new things from each other in every Zoom session. I love that because it helps us know that we are not alone and that we all have each other.”
For those students who are now going through the college selection process, Fernanda is now the one giving advice.
“Don’t be afraid of the toughest classes, we are all smart,” she says. “It’s the students who work hard who pass their classes – you just need to work hard and have determination.”
The Torch Student Success Program is chaired by Jessica Frazier, Director of Student Activities & Engagement. The Torch Team includes Gaby Bermudez, Assistant Director of Student Engagement; Aaron Clark, Assistant Director of Housing and Residence Life, and Stacy Davidson, Director of Diversity & Equity.