During his first year at PLNU, software engineering and first-generation college student Josue Barragan would wake up before dawn to catch the 5:10 a.m. bus in order to make it to campus in time for his 7:25 a.m. computer science class and math lab.

As a commuter student traveling from his parents’ home near Downtown San Diego, Josue’s typical route consisted of a combination of three San Diego MTS buses, the trolley, and the final leg of the PLNU shuttle’s circuit from the Old Town Transit Center to campus. And that was just one way.

“The thing that really limited me was the last shuttle from campus left at 5 p.m.,” Josue said. “So I couldn’t stay after that or else I would have to walk the four miles or so to the station, which I did several times.” 

The decision for Josue to live at home and commute to college was mainly financial. From sixth to 12th grade, Josue attended the Preuss School, a top-ranked coeducational charter school partnered with and located on the UC San Diego campus to help historically underrepresented and low-income students become the first in their families to attend and graduate from college.

Josue is the middle of three siblings, with a brother five years his senior who graduated from San Diego State University, and a sister four years his junior. Additionally, when Josue was about 3 years old, his mom took in her youngest brother who’s just 10 years older than Josue. 

“He’s like my older-older brother and he was the first in our family to go to college, so he was like a first-first-gen student if you can say that,” Josue said. Josue’s family has been “a big source of support and guidance,” he said, “always telling me to follow my dreams.”

Josue developed an early fascination with computers, technology, and dissecting and optimizing systems in general. He participated in an intro to computer science class and joined his high school robotics club which helped cement his call to pursue an education and career in computer science. He graduated as one of three valedictorians from the Preuss School and was offered a nearly full-ride acceptance into UCSD established between the two schools’ coeducational partnership. While he was accepted into the science department, however, he wasn’t offered acceptance into the computer science major itself.

“I really knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “That’s my passion.”

Fortunately, during the college application process, Josue’s academic advisor recommended applying to a wide range of top STEM schools including UCLA, UC Berkeley, and Stanford. And, in the process, Josue discovered the concept of Christian liberal arts schools and was immediately drawn to PLNU.

“I was like, ‘No way! That’s an actual thing? Like-minded people going to study something cool like computer science, which I love, but who have the same mindset of praising God?’ And it was just so enticing,” he said.

As the acceptance deadline approached, Josue found himself struggling to decide between UCSD and PLNU.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Josue said. “I basically just prayed and looked for guidance and applied for a bunch of scholarships and told my parents, ‘this is what I want to do,’ and essentially just took the leap of faith. And by the grace of God, I was able to get a bunch of scholarships and financial aid that makes it almost a full ride.”

Through his academic achievement and family’s financial standing, Josue was able to qualify for the Cal and Pell Grants, as well as academic and need-based scholarships through PLNU. He later received additional PLNU departmental and named scholarships along with multiple awards from local foundations and his father’s employer, the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) branch of General Dynamics based in San Diego Harbor, where he serves as a leader in the welding maintenance department building commercial cargo and Navy auxiliary ships. And when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Josue also received additional need-based support aid through PLNU’s emergency Loma Relief Fund.

For many first-generation college students like Josue, however, getting into college is far from the only obstacle.

An Overview of First-Generation College Students at PLNU

PLNU’s Office of Admissions defines first-generation college students as students whose parent(s) or guardian(s) do not have a bachelor’s degree.

According to data collected over the last 10 years by Brent Goodman, director of PLNU’s Institutional Research — and shared by Scott Shoemaker, associate vice president for retention and enrollment — an average of roughly 25% of all PLNU traditional undergraduate students was first-generation.

Looking specifically at retention rates, both first-generation and continuing-generation students continued from their first to second years at PLNU at nearly the same rate. The discrepancy between the two groups, however, occurs in graduation rates, where the number of first-generation students without a degree by six years was, on average, nearly five percentage points lower than continuing-generation students. 

That means, compared to their continuing-generation peers, more first-generation students choose not to return to PLNU in their third or fourth year. And compared to data from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA)’s Center for First-Generation Student Success in 2019, that discrepancy between nationwide graduation rates is much larger at nearly 16 percentage points difference. 

However, PLNU’s Retention and Enrollment Committee took a special interest in closing that gap.

PLNU’s LomaFirst Initiative

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, mathematics professor and chair of PLNU’s Department of Mathematical, Information & Computer Science (MICS), Maria Zack, Ph.D., began to establish a coalition across the PLNU community including the Office of Admissions, Career Services, and Student Financial Services to help see more students through to graduation. That effort took off at the start of the fall 2021 semester with what would become the LomaFirst initiative. 

“LomaFirst came out of wanting to better retain students most in danger of dropping out, students who often do not know how to navigate the support systems available at the university,” said Zack. “It was an attempt to first create an identity and awareness among first-gen and non-first-gen students in the PLNU campus community and to shift the narrative so that first-generation students aren’t ashamed of their status but instead feel pride in doing something hard but also important for them and for their families.”

“As an institution that’s committed to helping students thrive, we’re excited to find better ways to serve the PLNU community, both first-generation and continuing-generation students alike, to fully pursue the future that God’s called them to.”

Cristina Rangel, who serves as an admissions support manager with PLNU’s Office of Admissions, as well as part of LomaFirst, is careful to remind herself and others that first-gen students are not a singular or monolithic group and overlap all racial, ethnic, social, and economic demographics. Through her role, Rangel gets to share conversations and stories with prospective and current students from all backgrounds, including many first-generation students, and often with students questioning whether or not they can stay at PLNU.

“Many students we talk to are in the same boat where they have the heart to pursue their education, but they’re struggling academically, they’re struggling emotionally, or they’re struggling financially,” she said. “Having been there myself, I understand what that feels like.” 

Rangel was also the first in her family to attend college, first earning her associate degree in social work from community college, then earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Biola University.

“To me, it’s really personal because I understand and I know what it’s like,” she said. “It’s not that you’re being lazy or irresponsible or immature about your education, especially those students who we know have done everything on their part. Like they’ve already submitted the FAFSA, they’ve already talked with their families, and they really are at that point where they hit a wall and they feel they’ve already exhausted all their resources.”

Being able to speak with students, Rangel is often able to advocate and find solutions before it’s too late, even being able to work with Student Financial Services to provide emergency funding. But for the students who don’t have that prior knowledge or know who to turn to for help, that’s what LomaFirst is seeking to solve.

“As an institution that’s committed to helping students thrive, we’re excited to find better ways to serve the PLNU community, both first-generation and continuing-generation students alike, to fully pursue the future that God’s called them to,” Rangel said.

The specific programs and priorities LomaFirst is seeking to achieve include:

  • Peer-mentoring programs and social activity groups for younger first-gen students to connect with, learn from, and follow the footsteps of others like them. 
  • Financial literacy, budgeting, and problem-solving skills built into curricular and co-curricular activities.
  • Academic advising to help first-gen students build long-term plans toward successful graduation.
  • Data infrastructure to monitor and detect early warning signs to intervene proactively before students are in danger of leaving PLNU. 
  • Emergency aid and rescue funds for students when they’ve exhausted all financial options.

PLNU President Bob Brower, Ph.D., a first-generation college student himself, was also excited to serve fellow first-gen students at PLNU through the LomaFirst initiative. “When I first started my journey in higher education, I assumed everyone else had everything figured out; I really didn’t know how to navigate many of the new settings and systems, or even what questions to ask or who or where to ask them,” he shared. “My hope is, through LomaFirst, as well as many other continuing endeavors, [first-gen students] like myself and Josue will be able to experience a greater sense of identity and know there are countless people who have also been able to achieve success and can serve as a resource on their journey toward their calling.”

Reimagining Toward a Post-COVID PLNU

During his first year at PLNU, as a commuter student without the luxury of a car, Josue recognized he’d probably miss out on much of the traditional PLNU experience but still made goals for what he wanted to accomplish.

“Point Loma revolves so much around residential life,” he said, “but you keep learning, you keep growing, and you try to get out there and find friendships. That’s how I found my way, being able to socialize and find friends within my department or general ed classes. Growing up in [the Preuss] school, as they prepared us for college, I’d already mentalized those things, like, ‘You’re going to look so different than all your classmates; they’re going to be from different backgrounds socially, economically, culturally, and everything.’ And one thing I will always remember from my math teacher who was also like a life coach and was always telling us, ‘Whenever you feel imposter syndrome or that you don’t belong, just remember that you have a place there and that you were accepted for a reason.’”

During the fall 2020 semester, while in virtual instruction, Josue began working as a teaching assistant within the MICS department, with computer science professor Lori Carter, Ph.D., as well as others who each continued to recommend Josue. The following summer of 2021, as PLNU began returning to in-person instruction, Josue participated in PLNU’s summer research program, mentored by adjunct professor Darren Bennett, who also serves as chief information security officer for the City of San Diego, as well as Dr. Zack.

“Because San Diego’s a big city that mostly has small businesses, many of these businesses can’t afford all that is needed to build their cyber security infrastructure,” Dr. Zack said. Josue’s role in the research project included helping create a free cyber range for computer professionals to learn to better detect and respond to threats.

“Because many of the most common tools used in intrusion detection, prevention, and forensics are actually free as open-source,” Dr. Zack continued, “the question is how do we build an environment and learning tool that’s free for different people in the city, in the region, and in higher education, but also for businesses that want to have their people have an opportunity to get some training?”

Being able to return to campus in person for the fall 2021 semester, as well as gaining access to a car, Josue was able to learn from the pandemic about what he wanted from his remaining time at PLNU.

“The pandemic actually empowered me more, I believe, which is weird, right? You’d expect the opposite,” he said. “But I realized what I was missing out on, you know? So when I came back to Loma in person, I came with a mindset of making these last years the best of my college life. Like I’m going to make connections, I’m going to help other students as a TA and do study sessions and a bunch of activities.”

Another new opportunity for Josue was joining and performing as part of PLNU’s worship arts team in chapel, a goal he’d had since his first year but conflicted with his scheduling and transportation. A guitar player in his church worship band alongside his dad, who switches between drums and bass guitar, his brother who plays violin, and an uncle who plays piano, Josue was able to perform for the first time in a praise and worship chapel at PLNU in fall of 2021.

“Now that I’m blessed to have a car, I’m actually able to do more activities and am able to stay [on campus] later, being able to worship with people and immerse myself in the community.”

And as Josue continues to make the most of his time at college, he wants to continue to look for other opportunities to help others be able to better experience what he has as well. 

“I’ve just developed this sense of gratitude, you know? Like I might have it a little bit harder than other people, but being able to come to Point Loma for me was already a win,” he said. “I’ve become a big advocate for education and being able to grow and see different perspectives. I hope to be able to be that light to later generations when I become a professional, to be able to explain and show the importance of education. And I really want to get to the point where I can help others because I’ve been helped so much. I’m here because of that help. And I want to be able to be that stepping stone for other people too.”

Taylor is a PLNU alum, writer, and editor with experience in nonprofit marketing, communications, branding, and storytelling on behalf of higher education, environmental restoration, and international economic development organizations.