Since 2016, Symone Morales has been one of UCLA’s strongest advocates for first-generation college students on campus. That year, Morales, who earned her undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her master’s from the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, assisted in inaugurating the undergraduate first-generation college student program called First To Go. During the past four years her role has expanded to reach beyond the undergraduate student and she now supports the entire first-generation college community on campus, including undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff and alumni.

At UCLA, a first-generation college student is defined as someone whose parents/guardians did not complete a bachelor’s degree.

For First-Generation Awareness Week at UCLA, Morales, who is now UCLA’s coordinator of first-generation campus-wide initiatives, answered some questions.

What exactly do you do?

Here’s an overview of what the First To Go office does, which encompasses all the things I do.

The First To Go office provides support for first-gen Bruins by offering connections to campus resources, creating networking opportunities with faculty, staff and peers, raising awareness of unique first-gen experiences, fostering community and promoting academic success. In addition to programming for the undergraduate population, the FTG office houses the first-gen Faculty Initiative, oversees the campus-wide First-Gen Advisory Board, works closely with the First To Go Living Learning Community in Hedrick Hall, and advises and assists both undergraduate and graduate first-gen student groups. The office serve as a resource hub to assist the first-gen community as they navigate the campus and provide support in building community.

In addition to providing support to the community, I have the pleasure of supervising the outstanding First To Go interns — undergraduate interns Jose Luis Herrera and Linda Arroyo, and master in student affairs graduate intern, Jessica Guzman. The interns are the powerhouse behind the curated weekly first-gen newsletter — which highlights of resources, scholarship, jobs, internships and programs with the community, hosting quarterly programs and managing the first-gen social media platforms. 

Lastly, I work closely with the other nine University of California campuses to share best practices, current research and ensure that we are meeting the needs of first-gen students throughout the UC system.

Can you share about your story as a first-gen student?

Born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, I was the first person in my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Growing up I was exposed early on to college, particularly North Carolina Central University, which is one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities and in my hometown. In elementary school my mother and I would attend the annual parades, university events and occasionally we would sit in on classes. Although I was exposed to “university life” on a few occasions, there was no one there to truly help me along in the process — writing personal statements, completing the FAFSA [financial aid form], determining match versus fit, campus tours, completing applications, fee waivers, etc. College access programs, like AVID, helped me to see that college was a viable option for me.

After completing college, I served as a college adviser with the Carolina College Advising Corps helping first-generation, low-income high school students navigate the college application process. Working with the advising corps allowed me to assist first-gen students, like myself, build that network of support and matriculate to two-year and four-year institutions. Now in my current role at UCLA, I am able to help the same population of students make it to the finish line.

I earned bachelor of arts degrees in sociology and African American studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and I hold a master’s degree in student affairs from UCLA.

Why is First-Generation Awareness Week so important for UCLA and in general?

First-Generation college status in an invisible identity and for many students, they are unaware that they first-generation until later in their college career. Being the first to go to college can be both empowering and challenging for a lot of students. First-Generation Awareness Week gives us the opportunity to bring to light the first-gen identity, celebrate the students’ success, highlight important resources that may be beneficial to their persistence here at UCLA, and to continue to assist them in building their network of support. This includes creating environments where students can interact with first-gen faculty, learn from graduate students on how to navigate graduate school processes, and show them that they are not alone in their college journey. This fourth annual week is particularly important for UCLA because the population of first-generation undergraduate students falls at one-third of the population. With such a large percentage of first-generation students, it important that we, the university, show the students that we see, acknowledge and support them.

What’s your favorite part about the job?

The two things that I enjoy most about my job are:

  1. Working with faculty and staff members who are invested in gaining the necessary tools to support first-generation students as well as their commitment to being in spaces to share their knowledge and advice with the population. Very frequently faculty and staff members will wear first-generation t-shirts and/or buttons proudly in their offices and classrooms to create visibly and spark dialogue. 
  2. I thoroughly enjoy working with and interacting with first-gen students. They are extremely resilient, resourceful and motivated! 

What’s the biggest challenge you and your office face? 

Since the launch of First-Gen Initiatives, there has been an overwhelming amount of support throughout the university over the past four academic years in supporting the first-generation student population. Our biggest challenge is the lack of full-time professional staff to assist with programming, support and initiatives that fall under the First To Go Office. With a population of more than 11,000 undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff who are first-gen, we are faced with several limitations when trying to meet the needs of the students.

What makes UCLA a good school for first-gen students?

UCLA is committed to making first-gen students feel welcomed and connected to the university from the very first moment students set foot on campus. Understanding of the first-gen experience and acknowledgement of the population is seen at the Chancellor’s welcome during This is Bruin Life, in the classroom and across student support services. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

UCLA is recognized by the Center for First-generation Student Success as a First Forward Institution — a recognition program for higher education institutions for their commitment to first-generation student success.