A Matter of Degrees

Smack in the middle of a leafy residential San Rafael neighborhood, Dominican University seems a sudden enclave of academia. The main campus is only a few blocks long, but to a new visitor it is unexpectedly collegiate. Here are the old and dignified stone buildings; there is the newly remodeled cafeteria. Even in summer, students lounge on benches and gather on lawns.

A full quarter of those students are the first in their families to go to college. This is well over the national average, as only 13 percent of America’s “first gens” enroll in private four-year colleges, says Linda DeAngelo of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.

“What we offer at the front door is not just hope and opportunity, but also actual on-the-ground experience,” says Pat Coleman, vice president of admissions. “We emphasize application of theory.”

Students as well as employees are quick to take pride in their school, pointing to quality classes, intimate size and high diversity. “The thing about Dominican is that it’s so small, you can’t help but make connections,” says senior Amiya Powell-Hodge. “I know my deans personally; I can call them on the phone and talk with them.”

Professors and administrators seem to thrive on stepping up to help kids who might not get much support from their families. “You get to know them; you get to know where they come from,” says Sibdas Ghosh, science and mathematics department chair, who is known for being a dedicated mentor to his students.

“For example, some kids learn in high school that reading is a habit,” he adds. “But some kids never learn, because nobody at home ever told them, ‘Read a book, read a story.’ So the reading is not there. If they don’t have that concept, what do you do? We have to adapt our style.”

To help students reach their potential, for instance, faculty members might join them for lunch in the cafeteria or take a group out for dinner once a month. Students are matched up with hands-on projects, paid to spend time in research labs, and encouraged to publish and present their work.

“By the time they finish their freshman year, if you’re not engaging them, they are dropping out,” Ghosh explains. “We believe that the research itself is a teaching tool. Here they are actually doing it, and so they get curious.”

Here’s how three Dominican “first gens” paved their way to higher learning:

Victoria Rivera

After four years at Dominican, 22-year-old Victoria Rivera feels like this is where her life is. She shares a house in San Rafael with her boyfriend and their new puppy, and she has a solid community of friends who share similar goals and interests.

Occasionally, she goes back to Los Angeles to visit her large family, who still live there, but in some ways those trips are difficult. “I’ve always been the black sheep of the family, and it’s something I still struggle with,” she explains as her 11-week-old husky puppy romps on the neatly mowed lawn outside Rebecca Crown Library. “I honestly don’t have any family support at all.”

Though her mother is proud that Victoria is in college and taking graduate-level classes, she has suffered a long battle with illness and doesn’t have much energy left over to offer her daughter. And the rest of Victoria’s sprawling Mexican-American family doesn’t understand her choice to move north and invest so much time and money in her education.

“When I go home my little brother and my cousins say things to me that make it seem like I don’t want to be part of the family,” she says. “They make it seem like, ‘Oh you’re too good for us, oh you’re too good—stop acting this way.’”

For Victoria, college has always been a goal and school a priority. Her home life was tough as her mother struggled to raise two kids on her own with medical problems taking her in and out of the hospital, and in many ways school was a sanctuary: “I’ve always been the student who loved getting As and 100 percents and stickers on all my work.”

She’s now a student in an occupational therapy program that lets her earn both an undergraduate and a master’s degree in five years. She also works for the admissions office and for a student travel company and is involved in student government. When she graduates, she may start a business that combines occupational therapy with travel—or she may join the military, which would pay for her to get a Ph.D.

“I’ve always had really good teachers who eventually became my mentors,” she adds. “And I guess I just realized that for what I wanted to do, and who I wanted to be, you needed that college degree. I wanted that—for myself, not for anybody else.”

Teddy Morrow

Sitting on a shady bench outside the Science Center building, Teddy Morrow admits he’s been academically driven from a young age. The cheerful 21-year-old has been up since 4:30 a.m. and just finished taking a five-hour practice version of the medical school entrance exam. “Nobody had to push me to study. I’ve always enjoyed it, as sick as that may sound,” he says. “I’ve always been the student talking to the professors and the teachers and so on.”

Teddy was fast-tracked into advanced learning programs early on. Math and science weren’t his only interests: an enthusiastic, creative kid, he also played tennis, loved art and made the local paper at age 10 because of his collection of Elvis memorabilia.

“I sort of had a mild obsession,” he concedes. “My family even had to take a family trip to Graceland for Thanksgiving.” Being in the paper only fanned the flames. “I wound up becoming friends with one woman who read the article and wrote me into her will for all of her Elvis stuff because no one in her family wanted it. I had an unbelievable amount of stuff. It’s still in our attic.”

Today Teddy keeps only a few Elvis items on display in his dorm room. A typical summer outfit may feature flip-flops, shorts, and Ray-Bans tucked into the collar of a chaotic T-shirt featuring a turquoise cat with laser-beam eyes. The shirt is from a more recent obsessional phase, he admits. “I went through this stage where I wanted to wear stuff that nobody has seen before, so I went online and found artist and designer T-shirts. I went all-out for a while. I get a lot of flak for it, but whatever.”

The career choice of medicine over more artistic pursuits stems from both practicality and personal experience. When he was a teenager, his life was changed by an endocrinologist. Today, he plans to go into the same field.

“But who knows,” he adds. “I said I wanted to be an artist too, and look where that ended up. I might change from endocrinology, but going to medical school definitely won’t change.”

Amiya Powell-Hodge

Amiya Powell-Hodge grew up in a rough neighborhood on the edge of a rougher neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. Her childhood home had iron bars over the windows, and her mother wouldn’t let her play in the front yard. From the time she got jumped by a gang in junior high, Amiya knew she wanted a different life.

“My mom really wanted me to go to a school that was local so she could be close if anything happened, but I’d grown up in the ghetto all my life, and I wanted a new experience,” Amiya says. She begged her mother to enroll her in private high school, saying that if she didn’t get in, she wanted to be home-schooled.

“I didn’t even know that (the school she chose) was a college prep school,” she adds. “I just knew that it was far away and they had people who didn’t look like me.”

For college, Amiya chose Dominican partly because it seemed a good overall fit and partly because it suited her ongoing quest to expand her horizons.

“I got into Hampton, which is one of the top ‘historically black colleges,’ but I was like, ‘No, I just can’t see myself here,’” she recalls. “It’s true that there’s diversity among people of the same race—that’s very true. There’s diversity in talents and interests and education level, but that’s not enough for me. I’m a humanities and cultural studies major, so I read about a lot of people, but I also want to be able to talk to them.”

Though she plans to go to grad school, Amiya is already looking forward to finding a job where she can help connect kids with opportunity. “I’ve always been interested in helping students who are part of a minority group get into school. And I’m not talking about minority as in black or Mexican or what you’d think of as a minority, but I’m talking about all people who are demographically underrepresented.”

Now 21 and entering her senior year, Amiya is president of the Black Student Union and has just stepped down as student body president. She also just got a position as a resident adviser in the dorms. In between all that, she’s finishing her degree in humanities and cultural studies with a minor in business, and she hopes that before graduating she can attend the Semester at Sea study-abroad program, which includes travel to 15 different countries by boat.

“Anything could happen, anything,” she reflects. “I don’t want to leave this earth having only seen California.”