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Walkways to Westminster fosters college opportunities for 1st-generation, underrepresented students

Reagan Vigil, third from the left, smiles with other Walkways peer mentors outside of the Health, Wellness and Athletic Center. Walkways hired 35 peer mentors during the 2018-19 school year, according to the Walkways website.Photo courtesy of Mackenzie Bledsoe.

Walkways to Westminster is an after-school program for first-generation and underrepresented students in grades 5-12, and provides one-on-one life and academic mentoring. 

During the 2018-19 school year, Walkways to Westminster employed 35 professional mentors and served over 200 students, according to the Walkways website.

Nicole Klonizos, lead mentor, assistant coordinator for Walkways to Westminster and junior elementary education major, spent the last two years working with students at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School. 

“Studies show by the time a child is 10 they know whether or not their family and community expects them to attend college,” Klonizos said. “We’re trying to change that if they’re getting negative messaging in that area.”

Among mentoring and tutoring, Klonizos prepares students for higher education through college access program activities, familiarizing students with postsecondary schooling early.

Walkways to Westminster has three college access programs in the Granite School District in South Salt Lake, which start in elementary school and continue through the end of high school, according to the Walkways website.

Klonizos said she hopes raising awareness about college will provide students with the resources they need to attend college.

“Working with kids, you never know what your impact is,” Klonizos said. “It’s very early to start talking about college with them when they’re 10 years old, but [… ] we’re hoping they go through the succession [of the Walkways program] and continue developing their knowledge about college and are able to share that with others.”

Klonizos said the work Walkways is doing is important because of the positive role models it gives for students in the program.

“I think that’s one of the ways you know you’re making a really good impact in the student’s lives, because they notice that you’re there, they notice what you’re doing, so I think it’s really important to continue coming [to Walkways],” Klonizos said.

Angelica Rodriguez, a junior elementary education major and Walkways mentor, said making connections with the students was one of the most rewarding parts of her job.

“Working with the kids and seeing them work through their problems and reaching those ‘aha’ moments can be so rewarding,” Rodriguez said. “I love being able to get to know the kids outside of being students and seeing their side as individuals.”

Supporting First-Generation Students

During the 2015-16 school year, 56% of college students in the U.S. were first-generation students, or had parents who never finished a bachelor’s degree, according to the Center for First-generation Student Success.

Reagan Vigil, a senior psychology major and Walkways mentor at Woodrow Wilson elementary, said many students she mentors will be first-generation students.

“Most of the students are unaware [about college,] which is pretty common in the community in South Salt Lake,” Vigil said. “It’s a really underdeveloped, underrepresented community we work in, which is why [Walkways] goes there, to create college awareness.”

Vigil, who is a first-generation student, said there are many challenges first-generation students face that others may not experience.

“Being first-gen is hard,” Vigil said. “I think the biggest thing is […] you just don’t know how to do anything. A lot of other kids, their parents were like ‘oh here’s what you expect [in college,] here’s what will happen normally,’ and I didn’t have anyone that was like ‘this is what college is going to be like.’”

Vigil said one of the reasons she joined Walkways to Westminster was because she understood the difficulties of being an underrepresented student.

“I was really happy to receive the opportunity to try and make a difference in someone’s life,” Vigil said. “I do recognize a lot of the struggles these kids go through […] and I think it helps them to have somebody to relate to.”

Supporting Low-Income Students

Schools that partner with Walkways are part of the Title I program, which provides them with financial assistance from the state of Utah based on the the percentage of students in low-income families, according to the Utah State Board of Education.

“A lot of the students need me to give them pencils and paper because they don’t have that,” Klonizos said. “They’re not just carrying [supplies] around like students in a different income level would.”

Walkways mentors provide students with classroom supplies and items they may need for projects, which is reimbursed through the Walkways program, according to Klonizos. 

Klonizos said that Walkways to Westminster also works with Promise South Salt Lake, an initiative created in 2008 by South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood, to provide school supplies and other essential items to students.

Supporting Underrepresented Students

South Salt Lake is one of Utah’s most diverse regions, with nearly one-third of the population belonging to minority groups, according to the United States Census Bureau. Due to the diversity of students within the Walkways program, Klonizos said a learning curve for new mentors is understanding their positionality with the students.

“I think it’s important to […] understand you’re not going to know what their experiences are, but [still] being willing to be open and listen,” Klonizos said. “Understanding my privilege […] in these young children’s lives and how I can be a mentor or role model to them is something I try to be conscious about.”

Reagan Vigil, Walkways peer mentor, said having empathy for students becomes especially important when working with students in the Walkways program.

“I think you have to have a really open mind and be really gentle hearted and able to see things from their point of view,” Vigil said. “I think sometimes that gets lost, and you have to remember ‘what did everything look like when I was 10 years old?’”

Partnership with Legacy Program

The Legacy Program is an initiative that supports first-generation, underrepresented undergraduates at Westminster College. About eight events are held at Westminster every year, focused on first-generation students on campus, which include a mentor match and study retreats, according to Kari Lindsey, co-director of the Legacy Program.

Legacy partners with Walkways to Westminster and serves as a pipeline for Walkways students. The Walkways students who come to Westminster and fill out a Legacy application will get into the program, according to Lindsey.

“[The Legacy Program] loves working with Walkways because it’s starting college access young, and maintaining a promise until they graduate,” Lindsey said. “With Walkways it’s like, ‘we’ll be with you from elementary school to graduation day from college,’ which is really important.”

The Legacy Program was established in 2016 by Daniel Cairo, Westminster’s former dean of students, after he saw a need to create an inclusive space for first-generation students, according to Lindsey.

“First-generation students are a growing number of students on college campuses, but nationally the graduation rate and sense of belonging tends to be lower,” Lindsey said. “For many years, colleges have put that burden on the students by saying ‘oh well, they’re not college ready,’ but there’s this growing movement to say ‘the students are fine, colleges are not student-ready.’”

Lindsey said the Legacy Program community for first-generation students is something she hasn’t seen at other colleges and is one of her favorite parts of her job.

“This is a community that will show up for each other late at night if they need study help, they’ll help each other in class, in personal lives, it’s really quite amazing,” Lindsey said.

Reagan Vigil, Walkways peer mentor and Legacy Scholar, also said the Legacy Program created a tight-knit community for her.

“So many of my friends are from the Legacy Program, it was really nice to be able to come into school already knowing some people because of [the program,]” Vigil said.

The Legacy Program will host first-generation week from Nov. 8-12 and activities will take place in Richer Commons throughout the week. The event will celebrate first-generation students on campus, and is open to anyone in the Westminster Community, according to Lindsey.

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Channing Gibbs is a senior communication major at Westminster College. Channing loves learning about new countries and cultures, and has dreams to live abroad after graduation. In his free time, you can find him hanging out with friends, playing piano and binging K-dramas.

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