Closing the gap for first-generation students

By Sean Park
Samantha Penjaraenwatana is the first in her immediate family to earn a four-year degree.

Samantha Penjaraenwatana

Leading up to her first day at the University of Washington Bothell, she remembers feeling “very excited but also very nervous.”

She felt like she was at a disadvantage because, as a first-generation student, she had not learned about college from previous experiences in her family.

Now, looking back at her time at UW Bothell, she has her own story of empowerment to share. When it came time to choose a major and start planning for life after college, in fact, her experiences at UW Bothell inspired her to pursue a professional career in student development.

A new world

Staff in Orientation & Transition Programs, in the First-Year and Pre-Major Program, in the Student Diversity Center and other areas across campus all work to ensure new students know how to access the tools they need to be successful. One of the first opportunities to introduce students to the world of higher education and connect them to their new community at UW Bothell is orientation.

Like all incoming students, Penjaraenwatana attended a variety of orientation activities the week before her classes started — and it “made all the difference in the world,” she said.

“Learning about the resources available and just getting a feel for where things were calmed me down a lot,” Penjaraenwatana said. “But what helped the most was the connection I made with Mina.”

Mina Hooshangi (Community Psychology ’12) was her orientation and transition group leader, and the two remain close friends today.

“During the first few months, I felt bombarded at times with all the information coming at me from all directions,” Penjaraenwatana said. “When I was lost, the peer-to-peer mentorship that I had with Mina started to make me feel confident. Mina had actually gone through the same experiences, so she showed me the way and shaped how I utilized all the resources available to me.”

Penjaraenwatana soon began spending more time on campus than the typical commuter student. She wanted to build more meaningful relationships within her new community, she said, and she didn’t feel in a rush to go home.

A second home

“When I didn’t have classes, I found myself making friends with both students and staff,” Penjaraenwatana said. “I started to feel a sense of belonging on campus.”

So when Penjaraenwatana needed a job, she knew she wanted to stay around campus.

She first got a position as a student assistant in Founders Hall, working at the front desk. Her favorite part of the job was meeting new people every day. She then worked as an assistant for other departments focused on student engagement, enjoying her work helping other students find their way on campus and navigating UW Bothell’s various student resources.

Entering her junior year, Penjaraenwatana accepted Hooshangi’s waiting invitation to join the orientation team as one of its leaders. Hooshangi had encouraged her since her first year to join, and Penjaraenwatana couldn’t be happier that she finally did.

“The O-team became my second family,” she said. “The impact we made and the relationships we built with students was a priceless experience.

“Everyone has skills and abilities that can be unlocked, and sometimes it takes someone else to acknowledge their potential for them to reach further.”

A bright future

In 2015, Penjaraenwata received her degree in Community Psychology, with a minor in Educational Studies. She then accepted a staff position at UW Bothell, serving as a program coordinator in the Division of Student Affairs. Responsibilities included work with the academic deans, faculty and students on a variety of programs.

After a year, Penjaraenwatana was pondering if she should attend graduate school. Friends and faculty at UW Bothell knew she wanted to pursue a career in higher education and so encouraged her to continue her education.

She decided to apply for a master’s program at Seattle University (SU) in student development, and relied on her network at UW Bothell to write letters of recommendation and be her cheerleaders through the grueling application process.

Penjaraenwatana is currently in the second year of the master’s program. Coming full circle, she also works as a graduate coordinator in the outreach center, focusing on first-generation programs to help incoming students with their transitions to college.

As part of her work, Penjaraenwatana is part of a small team that launched SU’s first-generation peer-to-peer mentorship program. The team created guidelines to provide training for junior and senior undergraduates who serve as mentors for younger students. Each mentor gets assigned a mentee and the pairs meet on a weekly basis. They discuss different ways to be successful at the university, from how to talk effectively with professors to how to create healthy study habits.

A new generation

To date, Penjaraenwatana has personally trained more than 25 mentors and looks forward to helping expand the program further.

“The people I met at UW Bothell inspired me to persist and continue my education. They believed in me,” she said. “I’m excited to help future students find their place in the world just as others have done for me.”

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