First-generation students graduating from U. of Utah
Program gives support to young Utahns who are first in their families to attend college.
Published: May 1, 2014 09:53AM
Updated: May 1, 2014 09:47AM
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Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Monty Kaufusi gets emotional, speaking at a ceremony for graduates of the David Eccles School of Business through the Opportunity Scholars program at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Friday April 18, 2014. The program mentors students who are the first in their families to go to college.

When Asusena Bugarin-Clark was growing up, her mother woke up at 3:30 a.m. for the morning shift at McDonald’s and her father worked the night shift as a janitor until midnight.

But her parents’ grinding schedule meant they could be home with their children in the mornings and afternoons.

“My dad would always say, ‘There’s already one janitor in the family, so that job’s taken. You have to find another one,’” she said. It was his way of saying, “‘This is a reality for me, but I don’t want it to be yours. You have the opportunity to do more.’”

Bugarin-Clark, 29, will graduate from the University of Utah Thursday with a degree in business administration and a job waiting for her at a construction company, a field she became fascinated with after taking a geomorphology class. She’s one of 18 graduates this year from the David Eccles School of Business Opportunity Scholars program.

First-generation college students like her form a large part of the University of Utah student body — about 40 percent. Nationally, the numbers are even higher, with nearly 50 percent of students being the first in their families to go to college, according to a 2010 report by the Department of Education.

Butthey also face a unique set of challenges. Only about half of first-generation students graduate in six years, compared to 64 percent of those whose parents went to college, according the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

That’s partly because children of graduates can look to their parents for help with everything from college applications to constructing course schedules. First-generation students don’t have that built-in resource, and for some finding help isn’t easy.

Corina Cortez, 24, always liked school and her parents kept her nose to the grindstone when she was a kid in Santaquin, despite their 15-hour workdays at a greenhouse. But the Mexican immigrants didn’t have experience with the details of applying to college, so she went to a school counselor instead. The meeting didn’t help much.

“I got the feeling more like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re not going to go to college,’” she said. “That was the first and last time I ever went.”

So she figured it out on her own online. Most of her friends, though, dropped out before high school graduation and her freshman year at the U. was lonely.

“My parents were great helping me to get here, but they didn’t know to be involved or what classes [to take],” she said. “I couldn’t go to them for that.”

She thought about dropping out or transferring, but “I told myself I was going to come here, I got here, I just need to stick it out,” she said.

She found her place on campus with the Hispanic Student Business Association, though she hit another bump in the road when the business school overhauled its curriculum. Struggling with a math course and having taken classes she didn’t need, Cortez went to another advisor, who suggested she might want to switch her major away from business.

“I was devastated,” she said. Cortez went to Richard Kaufusi, director of the Opportunity Scholars program.

He pointed her toward tutors and told her which courses would count for two requirements. She did an internship with Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and after graduation will go to work for the family-owned business where her parents work, getting hands-on operations experience.

“It’s a disservice when we limit our children just based on what we think they’d be good at,” said Kaufusi. “Everyone has the right to education.”

On campus, he functions as something of a surrogate parent.

“I tell students, ‘You can call, text me anytime, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” he said. “I get text messages through the weekend and late at night.”

The connection works both ways. Kaufusi has waited outside of classrooms to see whether students are attending and gone through countless boxes of Kleenex in his office.

“The majority of the challenges are not academic — they’re bright and they’re great,” he said. “The challenges they’re facing stem from home life ... dealing with life issues is really what I mainly do.”

Upheaval at home brought Kaufusi’s cousin, 26-year-old Heilame “Monty” Kaufusi, to Salt Lake City from his home state of Idaho, where his academic life got off track in junior high.

“I was told I wasn’t ever going to go to college,” he said. “I thought I would just play sports.”

His parents didn’t push their youngest of six toward education. But when he enrolled in East High School, an intensive reading program with a good teacher got him into Advanced Placement English.

“After that semester, I loved to write,” he said.

He credits a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with giving him the confidence to appeal to a U. committee weighing whether to admit him into the university. After an internship with the U.’s information technology group, he’s got a job offer from the department before graduation.

Monty Kaufusi said his cousin’s constant presence as the program’s director, along with a scholarship that covers tuition and books, makes the difference for Opportunity Scholars.

“We had hard times growing up; we didn’t have a lot of support when it came to college; we didn’t have financial support; we didn’t have someone helping us to learn,” he said. “All of us just needed that extra little support ... someone that’s there if you fall... Just feeling like you’re part of something on campus helps.”

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst