By Jennifer Jones, communications director, Bennion Community Service Center

“I always considered college, but it is still kind of daunting,” James Nguyen said. A senior majoring in biology, Nguyen is not your typical college student. Born in the U.S., his parents emigrated from Vietnam and had no college experience. After high school, he enlisted in the Air Force and became a medical technician. When his tour was up, he found himself at a crossroads: Re-enlist and make the Air Force a career or go back to school. He chose school. And despite his age and his experience, the process was intimidating.

Tori Bandley, an anthropology and environmental sustainability major, felt the same. “Neither of my parents went to college,” she said. “Navigating the process of getting into college was a little difficult because I had no one to really guide me. Both Bandley and Nguyen recently completed an Alternative Fall Break experience designed specifically for first-generation college students.

sanrafael-10-of-37Offered through the U’s Lowell Bennion Community Service Center, “Identity and Environmental Exploration” is intended to help first-generation students get involved with service and build a relationship with nature through environmental stewardship. The week-long trip consisted of five days of backcountry camping in Utah’s San Rafael Swell, combined with service projects coordinated through the Bureau of Land Management. The $50 cost included food, lodging and transportation. It’s deliberately low to make the experience accessible to more students.

Laura Schwartz, Alternative Breaks coordinator at the Bennion Center, was also the staff partner for this trip. “We spent the week not just learning more about each other but about being first-generation students. It’s one thing to attend a university. It’s another to actually complete your degree.” The trip is intended to help first-generation students understand how they can use volunteer work and the outdoors as tools to help them succeed.

This year the Bennion Center partnered with the U’s Outdoor Adventure department for help with gear and personnel. The group of eight students camped, climbed and cleaned up trail heads. “It’s hard!” Nguyen said. “Going up Pinnacle 1 is like going through school for the first time. You’re just kind of out there with your peers. I think it’s important to have a good support system in place to finish college or get to the top of a canyon. Everybody struggles at some point.”

“I have a crippling fear of heights,” Bandley admitted. “Pinnacle 1 was the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life. Every activity we did throughout the day we would try and tie it back into our education. That hike was the difficulty and fear (of college), and then you get to the top and the view as just unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

For Nguyen, the environmental impact was profound. “You just get a sense that these areas should be conserved. We talk about conservation a lot, but until you go out there you can’t get a feel of how important this is.”

“I really enjoyed reflecting daily with the other students about our identities as first-generation students,” Bandley said. “We each had really different experiences even though we were all first gen. I had no idea there was such a strong community of us at the U, so that was a really nice feeling.”

Schwartz hopes all of the students come home with more confidence in their ability to succeed at the U and play an active role in their community. “Having folks there to say, ‘You can do this. I know you can do this,’ makes such a big difference.”

Bandley agreed. “I think it’s 100 percent worth it — meeting people and reflecting on yourself, your education, your goals, and conquering your fears. I think that resembles the light at the end of the tunnel. I think it will all be worth it at the end.”

For more information on alternative breaks, go here.