How a Faculty Mentor Inspired Four Students to Graduate in Four Years

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.’”


Read about each student’s journey and the full story on Fresno State News.

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