In July 2016, Pomona College hired Maria Melendrez PZ ’16 as its first-generation student coordinator, a newly created position responsible for coordinating events to support first-generation and low-income students as they navigate their college experience.
“The College has a 10-year-long commitment to the idea of access for low-income, first-gen students to the Pomona College experience, as manifested in part through the Quest program” Pomona Associate Dean of Students Ricardo Townes, Melendrez’s supervisor in this new role, said.
Quest, short for the QuestBridge, is a national foundation that supports low-income students from high school, through college, to their first job.
“We have been evolving, with Pomona Quest, a first-year mentoring program, a peer mentoring program, a faculty mentoring program, [and] there’s also a Quest Club. This thing has just been growing over the last ten years, and especially the last couple years,” Townes said. “Last year was a culminating kind of year to move in this direction.”
Students also organized a conversation with Pomona President David Oxtoby last year to request supplementary support and advocacy.
Pomona College has held a first-generation welcome dinner for students and their families during New Student Orientation the past two years. This past spring, Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum, who usually hosts the dinner, was on sabbatical, but Melendrez, just weeks into her new role, stepped in to make sure the dinner still occurred, calling individual students to invite them to the dinner.
Melendrez said that the dinner was an essential part of welcoming first-generation families.
“I’m like, 'Nuh uh. No! We shouldn’t postpone it,'” she said. “I said, 'Well, why don’t we have a first-gen family welcome dinner, and I can make phone calls and I can send invitations to the families.' That’s a great way for the students to get to know me before they are on campus.”
Townes spoke highly of Melendrez’s credentials.
“I’m not sure if we could’ve done a better job getting a first person in this role. She’s got lots of energy. She’s really, really smart. She’s got lots of good ideas. She’s grounded in the research around this community. She is herself low-income first-gen. [Melendrez] is like the total package,” he said.
According to Townes, Melendrez’s impact on the Pomona community was felt almost instantaneously. In her first two months at Pomona, she has already organized several events and workshops to support first-generation students and help them navigate College offices, from the Career Development Office, to the Draper Center, to Financial Aid. First-generation programming has included a resume and cover letter workshop, an open mic night, a cupcake study break, a financial aid workshop, and various bonding events in the Quest Nest, a study and hangout space in the Smith Cultural Center recently dedicated to first-generation students.
Melendrez also gave a presentation to over a hundred members of Pomona's Residence Hall Staff, guiding RAs, Mentors and Sponsors on how to best support first-generation students.
“Maria is interested in social stratification that examines how institutions of higher education can interrupt the reproduction of inequality in American society. More specifically, she is interested in the role of elite private colleges,” said Pitzer Professor Roberta Espinoza, with whom Maria conducted research during her four years as a student.
Under the guidance of Espinoza, Melendrez examined the first-year implementation of the Pitzer Pathway Initiative, a program designed to increase the number of low-income minority students who apply to and attend Pitzer College. In 2015, she again worked with Espinoza on a project titled 'Understanding How Undergraduate Research Experiences Influence First-Generation Student Aspirations for Graduate School.'
As a native Spanish speaker, Melendrez has been able to connect with first-generation students’ families for whom English is not a first language. Having grown up in a low-income, undocumented, single parent household where she was the first to attend college, Melendrez said that she understands the importance of creating a community and support system for students whose parents did not have the privilege of attending a college or university.
“We are crossing cultural barriers,” and we’re finding common ground in order to produce an inclusive community—that is supportive, that is understanding, that can actually make you feel safe, or like you have an advocate. Like you have someone who understands you,” Melendrez said.