Jillin Colunga grew up thinking higher education would never be within reach. Being the oldest of six siblings in a low-income household, the Monson native, knew she had a tough road ahead.
She was determined to show her younger siblings that obtaining a degree is possible, and today Colunga is proud to say she has earned a master’s degree in Multilingual Multicultural Education from Fresno State’s Kremen School of Education and Human Development.
As a first-generation student, Colunga knew there was much to learn about higher education. She traveled to U.C. Santa Barbara and studied Education and Black Studies. Being in a new environment was very difficult and she quickly began performing poorly in her courses.
What Colunga didn’t expect was that she wouldn’t be able to relate to her professors. “I was scared to reach out, I just didn’t feel comfortable,” said Colunga. That is until she had her first Hispanic professor, Mario Galicia. She remembers seeing him stand in front of a room full of students, and she was immediately inspired.
Seeing a professor of color gave her the drive she needed to push through her studies.
During her coursework, she learned about discrimination in the classroom and how some school policies affect students of color differently than other students.
“Coming from a low-income community, I have seen some of these things take place. A lot of what I was reading about I have experienced and I know they happen to other people,” said Colunga.
Colunga is one of many first-generation students the Kremen School has supported straight through to graduation. In fact, Fresno State’s incoming freshmen class was the largest admission in the history of the institution with 54 percent being first-generation.
The MME program was conceived and designed to specifically bring awareness as well as responsiveness to recognize the need for diverse voices impacting education. Whether in teaching, leadership, or counseling, the Kremen School’s mission is to prepare qualified leaders for diverse contexts. To that end the Kremen School offers unique programming, clinical opportunities in real professional contexts, and even scholarships for students who want to change the face of education.
“Kremen prepares the largest population of teachers, leaders, and counselors in the State of California that are actually prepared to make such a transformative impact,” said Dean Randy Yerrick, Kremen School of Education and Human Development. “We are very proud of this legacy and are supporting programs like MME and producing new opportunities to promote even greater diversity and leadership in the Valley.”
After Colunga completed her bachelor’s degree, she headed back to the South Valley, ready to make a difference.
Without wasting any time, Colunga enrolled in Fresno State’s M.A. in Education, Multilingual Multicultural Education (MME) program. A highlight of the program is that it can be completed entirely in the South Valley. This was important for Colunga because Monson is a small town 40 miles southeast of Fresno, near Dinuba, and the commute would be time-consuming and costly.
Colunga was drawn to the MME program because it addresses the growing need for linguistically and culturally diverse educators in the Central Valley. The program provides educators with an advanced level of inquiry, research, and professional preparation in both multilingualism and multiculturalism.
Historically the program has been offered at the Fresno State main campus, but after receiving a growing demand, it was evident that this program needed to be extended to the Fresno State Visalia Campus.
“One of our primary goals is to make graduate education accessible and affordable to our students while meeting the workforce needs of the South Valley,” said Luz Gonzelez, dean of the Fresno State Visalia Campus.
Financial Support Making it Possible
Not all institutions are as attentive to the struggles first-generation students face. Student debt in this country has dramatically increased, even President Obama saw the impact on students holding large debt years ago. Today the trend of out of control, student debt continues to rise and cause greater burden on students from underrepresented backgrounds.
Unique Struggles of First-Generation Students
- Navigating institutional systems like admissions, financial aid, professional job placements services, and academic tutoring.
- Lack of support for cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and other diversity on campus where students need a sense of belonging to complete challenging programs like STEM where opportunity gaps have persisted for decades.
- Struggle with identity and imposter syndrome and not asking for help for fear of repercussions or being singled out.
Colunga currently works as a substitute teacher at Cutler Orosi Unified and Monson-Sultana Joint Union Elementary School Districts, teaching subjects ranging from history to science. With existing school loans and unpredictable employment because of the pandemic, Colunga knew obtaining a graduate degree would be a financial burden.
After applying for financial aid, Colunga received news that she was being awarded funds from the State University Grant, a grant given to students who have the greatest need.
Fresno State provides over $250 million in financial aid, with almost 80 percent in the form of grants and scholarships. With the generous support of donors, Fresno State continues to be one of the best values in public higher education in the nation.
Impacting the South Valley
The MME program has been educating students since 2014. Colunga is one of ten students to be the first to graduate from the South Valley MME cohort. To date, the MME program has graduated over 60 students, with a majority staying in the Central Valley.
“Graduates of the Multilingual Multicultural master’s program impact the Central Valley daily,” said Dr. Teresa Huerta, MME program coordinator. “Our community needs leaders in education who are knowledgeable and effective in the areas of bilingual education, culture, critical educational theory, and social justice.”
Now that Colunga has graduated, she aspires to become a community college professor and represent Hispanic faculty in the South Valley.
California’s community colleges, similar to other educational institutions in the state, do not have equal ethnic representation between students and faculty. According to the California Community College Chancellor’s Office, in fall 2019 Hispanics made up 47 percent of the student population with only 17 percent for the faculty population.
In the South Valley, Hispanic students make up an even larger percentage. In fall 2019, College of the Sequoias had a Hispanic student population of 69 percent with only 20 percent of faculty being Hispanic.
Colunga wants to help change this. “There is low income all around us,” she said. “If I have that ability to be a support system and encourage other first-gen students, I want to be here. This is my home.”