Trailblazers graduating from Notre Dame

Rachel De La Haya, left, Dimetria Jenkins and Cindy Contreras stand on the campus of Notre Dame of Maryland University, where they are in the Trailblazers program for studnts who are the first in their families to attend college. (Staff photo by Larry Perl / May 19, 2014)

When Rachel De La Haya drives back to San Antonio, Texas, after graduating from Notre Dame of Maryland University on Saturday, she won't be hitting the road so much as blazing a trail.

She is the first generation of her family to graduate from college, and is doing so through Trailblazers, an opt-in program in Notre Dame's School of Arts and Sciences.

The program of 107 students, which was founded in 2010 with grants from the Walmart Foundation and the state of Maryland, is graduating its first class of 20 seniors this year. It is designed to help students like De La Haya navigate financial aid and other complexities that they are the first in their families to deal with, university officials say. They said the dropout rates for first-generation college students nationally tend to be higher than for students as a whole.

Notre Dame contributes faculty advisers and in-kind services ranging from career counseling to resume writing, in an effort to help students with "life planning and realizing their aspirations," said Debra Franklin, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.

De La Haya, 22, remembers feeling physically ill as a freshman and not knowing where to turn for help, coming from a family that rarely saw a doctor.

"I was freaking out, [thinking] 'I'm sick. Where am I going to go?' We never went to the doctor unless we absolutely had to."

She knew little about applying for financial aid and how to fill out the forms.

Now, as De La Haya heads back to Texas with a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations and a minor in Peace and Justice — but without a job lined up — "it's both terrifying and exciting," she said. "This has been a home for me. And to leave is sad. Who's going to tell me my outfit looks nice? Who's going to tell me to clean my room?"

"I can relate," said Notre Dame President Joan Develin Coley, noting that she was the first in her own family to go to college. Coley, the daughter of a blue collar worker and a homemaker, hosted a May 19 reception for graduating Trailblazers at the president's house in Homeland.

"All the research shows they have more hurdles to overcome. It's an accomplishment," Coley said. "A higher percentage of them are graduating than other groups of students" at Notre Dame.

"Higher education has begun to notice the importance of first-generation students (as) a component of college-bound students," said Franklin. "It's a different kind of experience. There's nobody you can talk to at home."

Beth Green, director of Trailblazers, said she doesn't know of another program quite like it, but added, "I think college support-type programs are increasing."

Notre Dame officials said they can quickly identify first-generation applicants to the university. Many high school students draw attention to it in their applications — "within like the first paragraph of my essay," said Cindy Contreras, 21, of Silver Spring, who is receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Arts, with a minor in Women's Studies.

Contreras said she and her three sisters were raised by a single mother from El Salvador, who has worked everywhere from Taco Bell to H&R Block to the Montgomery County government in parking meter enforcement, and is currently unemployed.

"There were times Mom was working 2-3 jobs," Contreras said. "There were rough days growing up."

Contreras recalled having difficulties with "the little things," when she first arrived, like not knowing what supplies to bring for her dormitory room. Being a first-generation college student "has definitely molded me into the person I am," she said.

Dimetria Jenkins, 21, of Loch Raven, said she has no immediate family in the area and was raised by a single mom, a former nurse who has since moved to North Carolina and now works in the dining hall at Wake Forest University. Being local, Jenkins had an easier time than some of the other Trailblazer students and said she lived in a dorm, rather than at home, by choice.

"I was local, but I wanted to be more independent," Jenkins said. "I kind of wanted to do things on my own."

She said her late grandmother saved money for her to go to college.

"I promised her it wouldn't go in vain."

Jenkins is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business with a concentration in Accounting, and has a 3.67 grade point average. She is currently is an intern at a local consulting firm. She's engaged to be married and has a job lined up at Morgan Stanley as a disbursement associate.

"Balancing school and work has been extremely difficult, and finding time to enjoy the little things in life," she said.

"These are highly motivated women," Franklin said.

Contreras, while earning a 3.5 grade point average, has also been working as a Trailblazers office assistant and at a Starbucks near Towson University.

She will have scant time to herself after commencement Saturday at the Hilton Baltimore Hotel downtown. On Tuesday, she will start studying for her master's degree in education with a certification in special education.

"So I have a nice three-day summer," she said.

De La Haya is a student master at Notre Dame, giving tours to and meeting with prospective students. She is also an office worker at Centro de la Communidad in Baltimore, which provides information, referral services and interpreters for legal issues such as citizenship and domestic violence cases.

She won't be resting on her laurels after graduation, either, because she and classmate Rebecca Joop have a $10,000 grant from the organization Davis Projects for Peace to spend July as primary school teachers in Tanzania. The grant covers their airfare and laptop computers they are bringing with them for the school, as well as desk computers that they will buy there, she said.