By Luciana Chavez, Special to Merced College

 Merced College English professor Cindy Chavez and counselor Jazmin Serrano sometimes witness their First-Year Learning Community students in Los Banos experience mundane, yet life-altering events.

 Eyes wide during takeoff of their first flight. Eagerly walking into a hotel for the first time. Glowing with pride while handing in their first research paper.

 “We can’t imagine what they haven’t experienced,” Chavez said of traveling with students to conferences and four-year schools, and getting them over academic hurdles. “They build confidence during those moments. They’re not confined anymore.”

 This perspective gave Chavez and Serrano a foundation from which to build a learning cohort for first-year students at Merced College’s Los Banos campus.

 “We were seeing so many first-generation students—even if they were high achievers in high school—drop out because they were unfamiliar and frustrated with the process of higher education,” said Serrano, the Student Success & Support counselor in Los Banos. “We needed something here to help students who were so underrepresented.”

 The Los Banos campus is a key part of Merced College. Yet, 42 miles away, it also has its own ecosystem. For example, the campus’s percentage of first-generation students is more than double that of the Merced campus.

 “When they come to us, the new ones don’t practice ‘help-seeking’ behaviors,” Los Banos Dean Lonita Cordova said. “We understand. In certain cultures, asking for help is considered a weakness. Once we connect them to a team, to a cohort, we build their trust.”

 A cohort is a group of students who advance through a program together. The structure has proven effective helping first-year college students—roughly 700 of the 2,000 total in Los Banos in 2020—clear obstacles.

 Chavez said previous efforts to create a first-year cohort lacked support. When Serrano arrived in 2016, Chavez gained an ally, and they got to work.

 “In the cohort, the students talk to each other and realize they’re not the only ones with their specific problems,” Serrano said. “They know they’re not alone.”

 When the duo asked Cordova, who arrived in 2018, for her help expanding their cohort, she didn’t hesitate.

 “We mapped it out and then they ran with it,” Cordova said. “All I really did was provide my signature and my support.”

 The program at Los Banos is expanding its scope in 2021.

 Starting this fall, the 30 cohort students will take 15 units—Guidance 30 (academic skills), English 1A (college composition), a math course, and one course in their major. Communication 1 (speech) is new for 2021.

 “Learning to express themselves can help students succeed in other courses and their lives in general,” said professor Griffin Cheek, who will teach the course. “I’m so pleased that my colleagues see the value of including my course in work they have shown a passion for.”

 In Spring 2022, students will take Guidance 45 (transfer prep), English 13 (critical reasoning), English 1B (literature), another math course appropriate for their major, and potentially a political science course.

 Nine courses meet transfer requirements for both the California State University and University of California systems. For the math requirement, they will likely add Math 10 (statistics) since it fulfills the CSU math requirement. When they add a second cohort, they will have a different math course suited to other majors.

 The day-to-day cohort work requires professors and counselors to cajole and stalk.

 Serrano said she practices “intrusive counseling”—she doesn’t wait for anyone to ask for help. She and Chavez attach themselves to students and don’t let go.

 Serrano remembers one of Chavez’s students who would have qualified for Disabled Student Programs and Services, but didn’t want to be known as a DSPS student.

 “She was high functioning but struggling, so I reached out to her right outside of her classroom,” Serrano said. “I would bump into her as often as I could and say, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ Eventually she came to me. We got her the services she needed without it feeling like a negative. She transferred to a four-year school and is doing really well.”

 The program leaders, when it is safe, want to take students to visit universities beyond the three or four nearest counties.

 So many Los Banos students can’t attend events in Merced, so they also want to stage their own transfer and career fairs, and host student-organized conferences.

 “This isn’t just about kids graduating from college,” Chavez said. “Our job is to prepare them to help the next generation, and so on.”

 Cordova is pleased with the results.

 “The key is a completely authentic passion for the work,” she said. “Cindy and Jazmin do it without the recognition and the prestige. They do it because it’s the right thing to do.”