ADPR’s Christina Najera Recipient of Inaugural First-Generation Advocate Award
When she was a first-generation college student, Tombras School of Advertising and Public Relations Assistant Professor Christina Najera had people who helped her navigate the intricacies of college life. When she entered into academia, she set out to provide that same kind of support for first-generation students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and now she has been given UT’s inaugural First-Generation Advocate Award.
“Dr. Najera could not be more deserving of this important and impactful honor. She is a tireless supporter of and advocate for all students, especially those who are first-generation. The Tombras School is so grateful for all Dr. Najera does to create a warm and inclusive environment for first-generation students as they navigate the challenges and opportunities of higher education,” said ADPR Professor and Director Beth Foster, who nominated Najera for the honor.
Going from high school to a college campus can be an overwhelming and intimidating experience for any student, but those who have parents with experience in higher education can often fall back on their family to assist with all the ins-and-outs of the process. First-generation students are basically on their own when they arrive—unless someone such as Najera steps in to help.
“I’ve been in many of the shoes of our first-gen students and I understand the need for extra support and consideration. We have to learn as we go, face challenges that we will succeed or fail at, and all the while, having to focus on classes, class work, etc.,” she said. “It is this unseen but very prevalent pressure of coming into this process and experience with no prior knowledge or shared experience with anyone else. Further, there is so much that we don’t know about the college experience that we don’t take advantage of all the opportunities that are at our disposal for our success, just because nobody has told us or there is no easy way for us to find out about them.”
Some of the things Najera has helped students with include going through a syllabus, finding institutional resources, learning how to use library databases, exploring career options, and just listening to students’ frustrations when they’re faced with unexpected speed bumps in their higher education journey.
“Though there is a lot of self-guidance in the process of college and college life, this extra support and assistance prepares our first-gen students for success and autonomy which builds their self-confidence and feeling of belonging to the institution they belong to,” she said.
She said she is tremendously honored and humbled to have been the first person to receive the award, and she’s proud of the university for creating it. Just the fact that the challenges first-generation students face are being recognized by university administration speaks to an investment in their success.
“In a way, it’s showcasing the extra mile or two we gladly go for our students. Further, it recognizes and acknowledges the unique challenges that our first-gen students face and its support of initiatives dedicated specifically to our students’ academic, professional, and social success while at UT,” she said.
The award honors both a faculty member and non-exempt staff member each year “who have made significant contributions to the success of first-generation college students through mentorship, programs and initiatives, research, or the implementation of first-generation student success strategies into their everyday work.” Current students, faculty, or staff members can nominate someone to be a recipient.