When Darwin Morgan began co-advising Trailblazers, a peer support program for first-generation criminal justice students at UNLV, he knew just how an important the program was because he once was a first-generation college student himself.
"There are a lot of general questions students have when they’re not versed in this kind of world, and no one's there to prepare them for it because they've never experienced it," said Morgan, a lecturer in the criminal justice department.
Trailblazers defines first-generation students whose parents attended but did not graduate college or did not attend college.
Trailblazers helps students form a community, Morgan said.
"Research shows us that first-generation students have barriers that make it harder for them to acclimate to the university life," Morgan said. "Our mentors are great at sharing their stories and the things they had issues with or the things they overcame."
Morgan grew up in Moulton, a part of rural Alabama where going to college was not an expectation. About half of his fellow high school classmates went straight to work after graduating. His older brother enrolled in college, but didn’t obtain a degree.
As a sophomore, he attended an Upward Bound program for aspiring college students. (UNLV offers the program through its Center for Academic Enrichment and Outreach.)
The summer program offered him a window into college life as he took English, computer, and other general elective classes at Calhoun Community College. He also stayed in the dorms at Athens State University and interacted with college-bound peers, fostering a sense of community that encouraged him to stay in touch with his cohort decades later.
“Being part of that program solidified the fact that I did want to go to college when I finished high school, and it did put me on the track to feel more comfortable,” he said. “Ultimately, being part of that program made me appreciate higher education — being part of a group of peers who wanted to help each other succeed.”
Once in college — first at a junior college and then University of Alabama — he excelled amid the academic rigor but had difficulty early on with seemingly simple tasks such as seeking out financial aid and registering for classes. That’s not uncommon with first-generation students, who often don’t have outside guidance on navigating nonacademic college processes, he said.
“I always loved school and I always had good grades, but it just took me longer than some of my peers to graduate,” he said. “While I struggled in college, I always found myself rooted in academic life."
Morgan earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice from the University of Alabama.
He cites his parents’ support as a contributing factor to his success. His father, proud of his son’s accomplishments and coincidentally an enormous fan of the Alabama football team, was ecstatic upon Morgan’s undergraduate graduation.
“I got my college class ring knowing I wouldn’t wear it because I wanted my dad to have it,” Morgan said.
But not all first-generation students have a support system. Some have to explain to family unfamiliar with academia why they chose their particular major or why they’re attending college in the first place, Morgan said. That’s why the Trailblazers’ peer-to-peer system is vital.
Since 2016, about 80 students and 32 mentors have participated in the program.
Mentors for the Trailblazers program are first-generation students selected by criminal justice faculty members. Mentees are typically freshmen and sophomore first-generation students who are seeking advice, academic assistance, or social support.
Zuzuki Carlson, '17 BA Criminal Justice and '19 MA Criminal Justice, reentered the academic world in 2014 at the age of 35.
At UNLV, she juggled classes, extracurricular activities, and single motherhood. She excelled, and Morgan invited her to become a mentor.
Carlson counseled two students once a month during the semester she participated in the mentorship program.
When one of the mentees shared that it was a struggle to study in a bustling household full of family members, Carlson referred the student to quiet spaces on and off campus. Something as simple as finding a student a place to study can mean the world to a mentee.
As a Latina, Carlson found herself identifying and bonding with the students, both of whom were Latinx, over shared aspects of their life stories.
“They reminded me a lot of myself when I was younger and some of their struggles were very similar to the ones I had to overcome as a first-generation college student,” she said.
By becoming a mentor, Carlson also learned about resources she hadn't known existed. She went on to become a graduate assistant and completed a master's degree in criminal justice this spring.
Students selected as mentors receive training through two classes over the course of two semesters. The classes are taught by Morgan and Gillian Pinchevsky, an associate professor of criminal justice and a Trailblazers co-advisor. The courses prepare mentors with skills in leadership, advising, conflict resolution, active listening, resume writing, and interviewing skills.
Morgan said it’s vital for the campus community to remember that first-generation students may not be immediately vocal about the help they require.
“Understand the realities of the world they live in,” he said. “When you’re invested in your students, that comes across, and it makes them more willing to be communicative, and it makes you a better ally for them.”
He also encourages first-generation students to seek out programs like Trailblazers and dive into campus life to make the most of the college experience and succeed.
“Ask questions, talk to your faculty, explore lots of classes, and learn from your mistakes,” he said. “Get involved in your courses, get involved with your peers, get involved with the organizations on campus, and get involved with your community.”