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Carmen Gonzalez is looking out for first-generation students

It’s 3:20 p.m. and students start to fill seats in a second-floor classroom in Peabody Hall. One student turns to another, asking about how her week has been. Almost everything about this class is normal. Almost. 

Here’s the difference: the professor at the front of the room was a first-generation college student, and so are the 38 students in the chairs.

The professor is Carmen Gonzalez. She is the director of undergraduate retention at UNC and the head of a new program for first-generation college students that brought all of the students here: the Lookout Scholars program.

While Gonzalez was completing her first college application in western Nebraska, she didn’t have anyone to guide her. But when her younger sisters started their applications, Gonzalez was there to help. She felt like she owed it to them.

Now, Gonzalez wants to do the same for her students.

When she's not teaching, she sits calmly at her desk and sifts through her schedule. She tries to find gaps in the colored blocks of her calendar to meet with some of her 100 students. Her desk on the third floor of the Steele Building is covered in certifications and signs. “One Act certified,” “LGBTQ+ ally” and a list of other accomplishments and groups she supports are stuck to her desk with small pieces of clear tape.

Despite the bustle, she’s glad she works with students because they “have so much energy,” she says with a kind of half smile. The half becomes whole when she thinks about their stories.

“It’s just knowing that someone else understands what your experience is, you don’t feel so isolated and alone,” Gonzalez said.

Though her parents didn’t have college degrees, they wanted her to earn one. Through a collaborative model, Gonzalez helps first-generation college students and encourages interaction, relationships and support.

First-year Nereida Rodriguez, a first-generation student, said when she went to her classes for the first time, she was intimidated — but not anymore. 

The reason Rodriguez feels so at ease is that she and the other students who were selected for the program are taking three entry-level classes together: English 105, Biology 101 and Education 130, the class Gonzalez teaches. 

“In this type of community we all know each other, instead of just putting us in a random classroom," Rodriguez said. "I'm an introvert, so it's kind of hard for me to go up to someone random and say, 'Hi.'"

One goal of the program is to prepare its students for next steps after college. 

“I think there are a lot of end goals,” Gonzalez said. “We want to see sheer numbers. We want students to have high cumulative GPAs, have opportunities to learn about and go on to graduate school and then just become engaged on campus.”

UNC does a lot to support first-generation college students. For years, the University has employed faculty to work with this group of students. In fact, other universities have modeled their support systems after UNC's, because of its wide-scale programming for all first-generation students.

Gonzalez has two children and, as she happily points out, neither of them would be in the same situation as she was if they apply to universities. But even though she thinks higher education is a bridge to higher income and opportunity, she won’t force them. 

“They’ll have to decide that for themselves.” 

That’s the way she teaches: encouragingly and expectantly, but not forcefully. That’s what her students say makes her education class unique. Unlike other professors, who may be intimidating, Rodriguez said Gonzalez is approachable.

Last week, the lesson touched on SMART Goals, which focus on breaking down big tasks into small, measurable ones. 

Along with the shared classes and the weekly meetup in Education 130, Lookout Scholars are encouraged to attend mentor sessions on Thursday evenings. 

George Lopez is a student mentor for the scholar program each week for Biology 101. He got involved in the program because he enjoys mentoring students like him. 

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Lopez is also a first-generation college student. He said he thinks the idea of structured support and study times are good, if sometimes difficult to enact. Still, he likes the concept of the program.

"I think it's a good idea," Lopez said. "Going to college I had no idea what to expect."

The sessions he leads focus on growing good study habits and casting off bad ones. Through it all, he encourages students to support one another. But during the first week of the program, there were only three students in the first Biology 101 session and zero the second week.

Lopez said reasons he thought attendance was low was because it was, “in essence, structured study time,” and exam season hadn't started. 

When she selected Lopez for the program, Gonzalez said it was necessary that the mentor also be a first-generation college student. The Lookout Scholars program has 38 students, two mentors, a graduate assistant and a director. They’re all first-generation.

The clock hits 3:34. Class starts in one minute. A lone girl slips into the door and plops into a chair. Gonzalez stands up from her seat and the students turn to look. It’s time to learn.