Before Kiandra Smith went to college, her college came to her.
As a student at Madras High School, located in a town of fewer than 10,000 people in the rolling high desert of Oregon’s interior, the Native American youth participated in an embedded college prep program called The Good Road, designed by Central Oregon Community College (COCC) to support her continued education while keeping cultural values front and center.
Once a week, Smith would attend a class in her own school, led by a COCC coordinator, that imparted college-focused skills, things like public speaking, presentation research and how to polish an essay. Throughout, the compass of the program always oriented toward cultural appreciation, from language reclamation discussions to writing poems about one’s heritage.
The Good Road is part of a larger college preparatory program at COCC, a multi-branched effort coordinated by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Its mission is to connect with underserved high school populations and support their educational goals. The programming also offers a Latinx-specific focus and, new this year, an Afrocentric program.
This article is part of a monthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations (NCMPR), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges. It is the second of a two-part series on first-generation college students. Read the first article.
Smith earned both high school attendance and a college credit, found a feeling of empowerment and showed herself — and her family — that going to college didn’t mean leaving her background behind.
“One thing I learned about myself in The Good Road was that I was not alone in the process,” said Smith, a first-generation college student. “College felt like a scary thought of going through it alone. The program gave me the courage to go through with the idea of getting into college.”
Now an exploratory student at COCC, Smith plans to transfer to Western Oregon University upon graduation. First, though, she’ll learn plenty of different things in an entirely different setting: She’s traveling to Spain this spring with the college’s study abroad program. She will be the first in her family to travel outside the United States.
Partnering with communities
The Good Road programs are partnered with 11 high schools spread across a district that would barely fit inside the state of Massachusetts. It’s a lot of ground to cover, but meeting students in their communities keeps the focus trained on where students are coming from.
“We support our students to develop effective teamwork skills while they explore and articulate their cultural identity,” said Claudia Bisso-Fetzer, who coordinates the Latinx college prep program.
It also develops community projects and is currently creating an exhibit about the Latinx culture in central Oregon.
To build the curriculum, COCC works with community cultural partners. For instance, the Native American program works closely with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Culture and Heritage department and the Warm Springs Community Action Team.
All three college prep programs have a free, weeklong summertime camp-like option, where students stay in the Bend campus residence hall and learn about career paths and college resources. They try on firefighting gear, peer into microscopes and brainstorm business ideas. Field trips and cultural sessions amplify the experience, culminating in a final project presented to families and college leadership.
Many are first-generation students, but any high schooler can participate. Funding comes from state sources, including the First-Generation Student Success Grant the college received from Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, and private groups like the Meyer Memorial Trust. The grants cover salaries, program costs, scholarships to attend COCC and laptops for many students to keep. The first program, with a Latinx focus, launched a decade ago and was followed by the Native American-centered program. The results have been consistently strong.
“These students not only graduate from high school at rates higher than their peers, but they also continue on to college in incredibly high numbers,” said Alicia Moore, COCC’s vice president of student affairs.
Oregon’s total four-year high school graduation rate was 80.6% in 2021, and last year, 100% of the program’s participants graduated high school. One-hundred percent of Latinx students went on to college or trade school, and 75% of Native students enrolled in college or a trade school.
Diversity at the college has also benefitted.
“Even though our overall COCC student population has declined in the last 10 years, the COCC Native American student population has increased 20% ,and the Latinx student population has increased by 42%, in part because of these programs,” said Christy Walker, director of diversity and inclusion.
Israel Tico is a first-generation Latinx student studying graphic design at the college. As a student at Bend Senior High, he participated in both ¡AVANZA!, the embedded high school program, and Ganas, the summer symposium. The programs helped him learn about student resources like scholarships and student loans, and, just as importantly, he bonded with his peers.
“I was able to meet more Latinx students like me,” Tico said. “Just by meeting during lunchtime in high school, to share our experiences and topics that we talk about because we all have and share the same culture, was incredible.”
As Smith prepares to head to Barcelona to study, she’s grateful for how her college helped open doors at an important time. It’s something she aims to pass on.
“I’m breaking barriers and setting standards for my younger family members to look up to,” she said. “I am here to show them that anything can be possible if you have enough courage to do so. That’s what being a first-generation college student is to me.”