UW Bothell works hard to nurture first-generation students

Financial aid is only the start. First-in-family college students also need a support system.

When Kelly Pham was growing up, her parents urged her and her two brothers to aim for a college education. Her parents even created a college savings fund that included a piggy bank with big eyes, blue ears and pink teeth.

“At the end of each day, my dad would put whatever money he had in his pocket into the piggy-bank,” Pham, 18, explained.

This spring, the piggy bank received another source of private capital when Pham became the recipient of a $1,250 Promising Scholars Fund, a privately backed college scholarship. This fall, Pham will be an incoming first-year student at the University of Washington Bothell.

UW Bothell expects to award the largest number of privately funded scholarships to date this academic year. So far, a total of $142,000 from 25 funds has been awarded to 63 students. Scholarships from companies, community groups and civic clubs are known as private scholarships.

A second round of private scholarships will be awarded later this year, putting the university on track to double the $202,000 from 31 funds it awarded 85 students last year, said Melissa Arias, associate vice chancellor for advancement.

Another private fund-raising event is planned for Feb. 5, with the goal of raising $325,000, Arias said.

“Private scholarship support is making a big impact on our students’ ability to stay enrolled through graduation and to participate in leadership and professional programs,” said Sandeep Krishnamurthy, dean of the UW Bothell School of Business.

Pham joins her two brothers as the first generation in their family to attend college. Her oldest brother, a UW Seattle graduate, is enrolled in medical school at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, while her other brother is in his senior year in mechanical engineering at UW Bothell.

Pham is just one of many UW Bothell students and scholarship recipients who are first-generation college students.

The university offers a “variety of programs and events designed to help students feel a sense of belonging and build community with one another,” UW Bothell communications director Maria Lamarca Anderson said.

The top two degrees pursued by first-generation students are the same as those pursued by all students: Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration and Bachelor of Science in Nursing, she said.

The graduation rate for first-generation students is 60 percent. Overall graduation rates last year for UW Bothell were among the top 15 percent of all public universities in the U.S., Lamarca Anderson said.

The UW Bothell campus, located just south of the Snohomish County line, enrolls about 6,000 students. That’s up from nearly 2,300 in 2008, a rapid pace of growth. And UW Bothell has increased its reach. For example, UW Bothell offers a bachelors degree in nursing in Everett. The percentage of Snohomish County students has fluctuated between 26 percent and 33 percent over the past several years.

UW Bothell shares its campus with Cascadia Community College. Cascadia opened in 2000; UW Bothell, in 1989. Officials hope to add 1 million square feet in new stand-alone academic buildings and student housing, according to a 20-year master plan recently approved by both institutions and the city of Bothell.

The Bothell campus is a perfect fit, Pham said.

“I’ve gone to a smaller campuses my whole life,” she said. “At Holy Names Academy (in Seattle) I was one of 160 girls.” Pham plans to study psychology, perhaps with the eventual goal of attending medical school.

“My parents never had the chance to go to college themselves, so it’s really important and meaningful for them to have that foundation of education, and know that this is more than an opportunity for me,” she said. “It’s my next step in life.”

Pham also contributes to her college fund through the paycheck she earns working with young children at the YMCA.

“Putting my brothers through school and me now through university is a lot for my parents,” Pham said. “Being able to receive any support really helps my family and shows them what they worked for really paid off.”

When Pham’s father immigrated to Seattle from Vietnam in 1975, there was no time or money for him to attend college. He found a job repairing cars, and continues working as a mechanic to this day, she said.

Work was the only option for Pham’s mother when she emigrated from Vietnam to Washington in the 1980s. Her mother’s family, in particular, endured many hardships, Pham said. Her mother’s father had to flee Vietnam, leaving his wife and seven children to survive on their own for several years. Government officials confiscated their home, forcing them out. When the family was finally able to leave, they did so with only the clothes on their backs, carrying the smallest children in their arms.

“Our parents worked so hard so that this can be our future, instead of something we can only dream about,” Pham said.

For information about private and public scholarships, grants and loans go towww.uwb.edu/financial-aid

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

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