First-Generation Mentor Program triples in size during pandemic

Since 2008, first-gen students can be paired up with first-gen alumni to help the young Trojans get the most out of their USC experience.

August 18, 2021 Gustavo Solis

Susan Navarro attended her USC orientation with her mother in 1984. Back then, before registration went online, first-year students had to walk from table to table on campus to fill out enrollment forms.

Navarro and her mom didn’t know what to do. She remembers feeling out of place: “We didn’t know where to go, how to sign up for classes, how to coordinate financial aid; it was all very overwhelming.”

Navarro’s mother offered emotional support but no practical advice — she hadn’t gone to college. As a first-generation student, Navarro would have to learn for herself.

“It was a really tough time for me,” she said. “I would never want another student to go through that.”

Her desire to spare future Trojans from being equally overwhelmed motivated Navarro to become a mentor through USC’s First-Generation Mentor Program. After that chaotic orientation experience, Navarro went on to graduate in 1989 with a degree in business administration. She has had a successful career in marketing and event planning for various industries, most recently for a large pharmaceutical company in Orange County.

The First-Generation Mentor Program started in 2008 at the USC Career Center, within the Division of Student Affairs, where staff had noticed an unmet need among first-generation Trojans. First-generation college students account for 20% of all undergraduates at USC.

It all started when staff piloted a small, experimental workshop for first-generation students to hear from a panel of alumni, who were also first in their families to go to USC, said Lauren Opgenorth, associate director of internship engagement.

“We thought 10 would show up, and we got 60,” she said. The lesson was clear: USC’s first-generation college students were hungry for information, connections and advice.

First-generation mentor program brings like-minded Trojans together

Staff began creating a program where first-gen students could build community not just with their peers but also with first-generation alumni who might serve as examples and role models.

The yearlong mentorship program requires serious commitment from both students and alumni. Mentors and mentees have to talk throughout the semester and attend monthly events. Throughout the program, they attend workshops on writing resumes and cover letters and conduct mock job interviews. Participants go to social events and network.

To pair the students with the right mentors, staff consider their personal background and career interests. They aim to match each student with a mentor who is passionate about sharing their knowledge in a field the student aspires to join one day.

Nat Apihunpunyakij, who graduated in 1997, was one of the original mentors when the program began in 2008. He has been involved off and on with the program ever since.

He is particularly proud of what he calls the “perfect record.” Every student he has mentored has either secured an internship or gotten a job. It’s something Apihunpunyakij likes to remind every new mentee.

“I tell the students who become my mentees, ‘You better not ruin that record,’” he said with a laugh. “I put a little bit of pressure on them.”

Part of Apihunpunyakij’s passion for helping students land jobs and internships comes from his own experience as a first-gen student. He only learned about career services late in his senior year. Before then, he felt like he was on his own. But that didn’t stop him from hustling.

Back then, students printed out resumes and mailed them out. He decided to take public transportation to downtown Los Angeles and walked into random office buildings. Then he’d look through the directory to look for leads.

“I would pick companies that I’d be interested in and literally handed them my resume,” he said. “Some of them gave me an interview right on the spot.” Eventually, he got a job at Coca-Cola. Now he runs his own private equity company.

Seeing Trojans help Trojans is what this program is all about, Apihunpunyakij said.

“I hope they see the value of the program, and hopefully they come back and participate as mentors,” he said.

COVID-19 pandemic pushed mentorship program to go virtual

Navarro became a mentor in 2009 and has been a part of the program ever since. Even though she lives in Orange County, she doesn’t mind driving to USC for events. She often traveled back and forth to the University Park Campus before the COVID-19 pandemic, when the program’s events all happened in person.

“For first-gen students, you cannot lean on family for college experience because there isn’t any, so this program is particularly valuable,” she said. “Most of us mentors, we’ve been through everything that they’ve gone through and probably more.”

In March 2020, the program went virtual due to public health measures. Building a community in a virtual setting posed challenges, but the move also offered benefits.

Most of us mentors, we’ve been through everything that they’ve gone through and probably more.

Susan Navarro

“The pandemic taught us you can link up with anyone, anywhere,” said Mallika Samtani, advisor for the internship and diversity programs at the USC Career Center, who oversaw the transition to virtual programs. “We are showing students and alumni that you can have meaningful mentorship virtually.”

Suddenly, the convenience of online meetings meant students had access to a bigger pool of mentors in a variety of workplaces and disciplines. Some work in industries that are small in Los Angeles but significant in other cities. For example, some mentors work in the tech industry in the Bay Area, while others work in politics in Washington, D.C., or finance in New York. Some live as far away as Australia.

For first-generation alumni who live outside Southern California, the virtual shift provided their first opportunity to volunteer as mentors. As a result, the program more than tripled in size within a year. They went from having 30 pairs in the 2019-20 academic year to over 100 pairs of mentors and mentees in 2020-21.

Students and alumni both find value in first-generation mentor program

Last semester, Navarro was paired up with Lourdes Rea, a junior from Los Angeles’ Mid-City neighborhood who had transferred to USC from Santa Monica Community College in 2020. Rea’s first experiences on campus were strikingly similar to Navarro’s nearly 30 years earlier.

“My first semester was challenging because the information I had was clearly limited in terms of what classes to register for or what sort of resources to take advantage of,” Rea said. “Slowly, I started to hear about all of these things you can do to enhance your experience here.”

Rea thought the mentorship program would be a great way for her to get the most out of her last two years at USC.

The two hit it off quickly. In the first-generation alumni mentors, Rea saw examples of what she could become one day.

“I was incredibly inspired from seeing their success,” she said. “I learned a lot. They were also confused in college, but regardless of all the obstacles, they successfully finished school and landed amazing jobs.”

The two worked together to land Rea an internship. They spruced up Rea’s resume, wrote several cover letters — each one different, depending on the industry and company she applied to — and even practiced mock interviews. Ultimately, Rea secured an e-commerce internship with a San Francisco-based vitamin company named Olly.

Navarro finds fulfillment in the impact she and other mentors have on students. “I like seeing the look on their face when I tell them something and their eyes light up and go, ‘Oh wow, I’ve never thought about that before.’”

The First-Generation Mentor Program is reviewing applications for mentors. They will open applications for students on Aug. 18. First-generation, undergraduate students are encouraged to apply by Sept. 8.

Visit the USC Career Services website for more information about the First-Generation Mentor Program, including how to apply to participate for the 2021-22 academic year.