A total of 477 first-generation students graduated from Utah State University during Commencement exercises in Logan on Thursday and at other USU satellite campuses this spring.

Heidi Kesler, director of Student Retention and Completion at USU, said that the Aggie First Scholars program has been instrumental in helping more first-generation students get their degrees.

“I think it is important to recognize that being first-generation only means ones’ parents did not graduate with a four-year degree,” Kesler stated in a press release. “It does not mean these students are in any way less prepared or able. Instead, for many of these students, it has pushed them to be very intentional and self-reliant as they pursue their education.”

Kesler spearheaded the creation of the Aggie First Scholars program two years ago in an effort to help provide mentors for students at USU who don’t have a family history of higher education.

Beginning in their freshman year, first-generation students have the option to join the program and be partnered with a peer mentor who meets with them on a monthly basis and provides advice, support and friendship. The program also encourages students to take orientation courses and complete a self-assessment to determine their misconceptions of college.

According to Kesler, during the 2018-2019 school year, 43 percent of the 619 first-generation students attending the Logan campus were mentored by 82 upperclassmen. Of the freshmen who met with their mentor two or more times during the fall semester, 99 percent continued their college experience into the spring semester, compared to 90 percent retention for those who didn’t opt into the mentor program and 93 percent for all freshmen.

A press release from the university featured two students who graduated this week, Karina Hernandez and Jesse Steadman.

Hernandez was part of Kesler’s inaugural group of AFS mentors. Even though she had a 4.0 GPA in high school and was in the top 10 of her class, Hernandez wasn’t sure if she would attend college after graduation.

“I really didn’t think it was going to be an option for my family,” Hernandez is quoted as saying in the release. “We just didn’t have the money for that, and neither of my parents or older siblings had gone to college before me.”

Hernandez said that school is where she focused all of her energy and she had a lot of teachers who believed in her.

Hernandez was born in Southeast Idaho after her parents came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1990. Hernandez graduated from Madison High School in Rexburg, Idaho, in 2014.

Hernandez went on to complete a bachelor’s in public health with an emphasis in industrial hygiene, and she will begin her career as an industrial hygienist at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden. Her younger brother has followed in her footsteps to Utah State and is in his sophomore year.

Like Hernandez, Steadman also started at Utah State as a first-gen student in the AFS program. The Tooele native said that AFS helped him get to know other people.

Steadman graduated with a bachelor’s in human biology and minors in chemistry and sociology. He has been accepted into the School of Medicine at the University of Utah. He wants to have a career as an orthopedic surgeon.

Kesler said that the Aggie First Scholars program continues to grow.

“As we look toward next year, we are anxious to involve more faculty who were also first-generation college students,” Kesler said. “In a recent survey, over 100 USU faculty identified themselves as first-generation. In fact, many of our administrators, including President (Noelle) Cockett, are also first-generation.”