September 01, 2022
Students and a staff member talk at the Take Flight orientation

Catholic University welcomed the most diverse first-year class in its history to campus this fall, including students who are the first in their families to attend college. Take Flight, a program of the Center for Cultural Engagement that encourages and supports first-generation students as they transition to life at the University, hosted the largest cohort in the history of the program for an expanded pre-orientation last week.

Fifty new students attended the optional free program that included student success seminars, campus resource tours, and meet-and-greets with Catholic University faculty and staff, many of whom shared their own experiences as first-generation college graduates. 

This year, what was once a one-day session was spread over three days to give students more time to bond over their shared experiences and develop their networks within the Catholic University community. The students, including those from the local area, lived on campus at no additional cost for the duration of the intensive summer bridge program held from Aug. 21 to 24. 

First-generation (or first-gen) students often do not enter their first semester on equal footing with the children of college graduates, who have the advantage of parents with first-hand experience successfully navigating the often overwhelming higher education system. Take Flight is designed to level the playing field for these students and help them feel welcome in an unfamiliar environment. 

“These Take Flight students will enter the larger orientation program with a sense of belonging and camaraderie. They now know they aren’t going through this process alone,” said Director of the Center for Cultural Engagement Javier Bustamante, who is himself a first-generation college graduate. 

He said many who are the first in their families to go to college experience intense pressure to succeed, with the pre-orientation program serving in part to ease those anxieties. He said that he saw a visible change in the students over just a few days, noting that the more they grew to know the Universityand each other the more they appeared at ease. 

Dakhiya Kelly, 18, said she chose Catholic University because she received a sizable scholarship. She found the diverse backgrounds of the people she met at the Take Flight pre-orientation helped make her quickly feel at home. Although most of the first year students are from the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, some came from as far as Texas and California. 

“I’ve made so many friends already,” said Kelly, just a day into the pre-orientation. “I’ve met people who look just like me.”

Following the pre-orientation, Take Flight offers mentorship, skills development workshops, and fellowship throughout all four years of college. The first cohort of 25 Take Flight students arrived on campus in 2019, so this year marks the first time that students from all academic years are represented in the program.

Bustamante said that 100 or more first-generation students enroll every year at Catholic University and his goal is to get every one of them in Take Flight to help make sure they are “taking full advantage of the college experience.” 

“I always look back and think ‘I wish someone would have told me’ what I am now sharing with the Take Flight students and with my own kids once they are older,’’ said Bustamante. He recalled that in his own time as an undergraduate, there were many questions he did not ask and resources he did not know he could tap into because of a lack of college knowledge that others may take for granted.

For example, he said that he regretted never entering his college career center because it did not occur to him that such valuable services could be available to him with no charge. He said  many students he encounters suffer from similar misconceptions; for example, writing off private institutions like Catholic University as unaffordable before looking into scholarships. He noted that many Take Flight students this year received generous tuition assistance from the University and partnerships, including scholarship programs like the District of Columbia College Access Program (DC-CAP)

“[Catholic University] is a place first-gen students can find a home and space for themselves…As the program continues to grow it will become more evident that we are a first-gen friendly campus,” said Bustamante.

First-year student and DC-CAP recipient Goodness Odagbodo, 18, who is majoring in biochemistry and intends to go to medical school, said “[Take Flight] is a great program…It’s clear they really want people to succeed…and do everything they can to make sure we have a great college experience.”