Four first-generation college students, all with goals to become teachers and each from different towns and countries, created a unique bond through their four years at Fresno State and are now preparing to graduate together in May.
The common link between Claudia Gutierrez, Alondra Aguilar Chavez, Alma Perez and Andrea Gutierrez that brought them together was the mentoring they received from Dr. Juliet Wahleithner through Fresno State’s First Year Experience program for first-generation freshmen needing to complete English and math remediation requirements.
The four are among 13 liberal studies students Wahleithner has mentored for the past four years, meeting with them multiple times a semester from their freshmen year to graduation. Evidence suggests faculty mentors have the ability to increase a student’s sense of belonging, retention and overall academic success.
“I thought it was really helpful being with the same group of students the whole year. Because most of us were first-time college students,” having courses together aided in growing friendships, Aguilar Chavez said. The girls would meet to work on classwork and group assignments together. “We have been in touch ever since.”
Wahleithner, an assistant professor of literacy at Fresno State and director of the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project, has dedicated her career to studying writing instruction. Early in her teaching career, she said she realized teachers needed instruction on how to teach writing. Most teachers receive very little preparation to teach writing, she said, yet students are expected to complete increasingly complex writing tasks in high school, college and the workplace.
At Fresno State, Wahleithner taught an academic reading course to 50 First Year Experience students whom she saw twice a week. She also reached out to students in the program to see if any would be interested in participating in her research study on understanding literacy development throughout students’ undergraduate education at Fresno State.
Wahleithner’s research focuses on how the preparation students received in high school and the support they received in the First Year Experience program prepared them for the reading and writing demands of their future courses at Fresno State.
“I didn’t think about how close I would get to these students,” she said. “I feel like I have become somebody they can turn to for support and when they have questions. They have trusted me with their stories and have trusted me to be a resource for them.”
Inspiring student success
Claudia Gutierrez, of Laton, said the program provided her comfort. Students in the program were grouped in a cohort with pre-scheduled courses and became familiar with one another. “It was nice to know we had each other,” she said.
“Dr. Wahleithner was very caring, and she wanted to know how we were doing and help us out if we needed anything,” said Claudia Gutierrez, who wants to become a second- or third-grade teacher with Fresno Unified School District. “How caring she was made me more comfortable with her to tell her, ‘Actually, yes, I am struggling with this. Do you think you can help me or can you figure it out with me?’”
The first in her family to go to college, Claudia Gutierrez has become a mentor for her little sister. “Ever since she was little, she said she wanted to be like me. Now she says, ‘I think I want to go to Fresno State too.’”
Wahleithner mentored Alondra Aguilar Chavez in both her academic and professional life. Throughout her schooling, Aguilar Chavez worked in the classroom as part of the Teaching Fellows Partnership Program that provides experience and resources to help future teachers succeed. When she got switched from a first-grade classroom to kindergarten, Wahleithner advised her to be patient and shared experiences of her own daughter in kindergarten.
The impact teachers in her hometown of Kerman made in her life has inspired Aguilar Chavez to stay local and teach primary grades. “Ever since I was younger, I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “I had really positive role models with teachers. They would do stuff that would be out of their way to help me.”
Born in Mexico City, Alma Perez is the first in her family to earn a degree from a four-year university in the United States. Her academic challenges started when she moved to the U.S. at 8 years old and had difficulty learning English. She remembers going into class for the first time and struggling to communicate with her teacher.
Thankfully, she had teachers who pushed her to succeed. At Abraham Lincoln Middle School in Selma, her sixth grade teacher consistently talked about the future and her eighth grade teacher promoted higher education. Perez was inspired.
At Fresno State, Wahleithner became that faculty mentor who continued to push her to succeed. Wahleithner helped Perez by writing letters of recommendation for scholarships and being willing to listen.
Upon graduation, Perez plans to pursue a teaching career so she can help other students in need.
“I want to be a teacher because I remember the struggles I went through,” Perez said. “I remember my parents couldn’t help me, so I would rely on my neighbors. I would like to be that support system for students to know that maybe at home they don’t have the support, but at school with the teacher they could ask for anything.”
Andrea Gutierrez’s four-year journey at Fresno State started with the First Year Experience program. “I thought that was a good way to start coming to college since I wasn’t going to know a lot of people.” Most of her high school friends went to community college and the First Year Experience cohort allowed her to meet peers with similar academic interests.
Andrea Gutierrez plans to enter the Multiple Subject Credential program at Fresno State and teach in a bilingual classroom at a Fresno County elementary school.
Wahleithner is proud of these four graduates and other students she mentors. And she makes sure to point out the mentorship doesn’t end here. She is already helping them study for the CBEST exam, a standardized test they must pass before pursuing their teaching credentials, and she plans to continue being part of the students’ support system.
“I like to keep in touch with them,” Wahleithner said, “keep supporting them.”