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First-generation ACU student leads program to help other students

Abilene Christian is the highest-ranking university in Texas in a U.S. News and World Report benchmark focused on student success. Here is a look at some of the people and programs that make our student experience exceptional.


Karla Mendoza

When Karla Mendoza, who graduated with a marketing degree in December, describes her college experience at Abilene Christian University, a word she uses often is “intentional.”

“Intentionality is very big at ACU,” Mendoza said. “From faculty and staff to students, anybody you come in contact with is very intentional.”

“Intentional” also describes first-generation college students like Mendoza. They have to be intentional to accomplish what their parents and siblings have not.

“I’m very independent,” she said. “That’s because my folks didn’t know how to navigate college. My dad only speaks Spanish. My folks couldn’t help a whole lot – they’re very busy working – so I had to figure it out. A lot of first-gen students experience that: ‘you’ll have to do that on your own.’ ”

But thanks to the leadership of Mendoza and Jordan Jones, associate director of financial counseling and student services, first-generation students don’t have to be on their own once they get to ACU.

The 1GEN program began in Spring 2020 and focuses on students who are the first in their family to attend or graduate from college. Jones noticed the challenges of retention among first-generation students. Mendoza was working as an intern in the office and had experienced some of those challenges herself, so the two set out to create a support system for other students coming into ACU. 

“It can be a hard experience,” Mendoza said. “When a lot of students arrive at ACU, they assume you have some type of college experience from parents or older siblings. You don’t go around saying, ‘Hey I’m first-gen.’ In reality, I had to figure everything out myself the first year. 1GEN is a way to share, with freshmen especially, our experiences that might be helpful to them.”

The program includes social events, workshops with guest faculty and staff, and peer-led mentor groups that meet every other week to talk about resources available and to answer questions. Recently, an adviser from the College of Business Administration came to talk to students about networking and future plans. 

“That’s great for freshmen to hear early on,” Mendoza said.

It’s particularly relevant for her to hear, too. Mendoza, who is now housing coordinator for ACU, said her experience at ACU has shaped what she looks for in a career.

“I always wanted to be marketing coordinator or event coordinator; that’s always been my goal, but now it’s like, ‘Am I going to be able to honor the Lord in this area in my life?’ ” she said. “When I started classes here, I saw there’s so much more than learning about business. We learn to be better Christ-like leaders. It opens a very different world for me that I didn’t know before.”

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