Dr. Brenda Thames

Administration October 2023 PREMIUM

Empowering First-Generation Students at El Camino Community College

With nothing more than a suitcase and a coat, Brenda Thames hopped off a Greyhound bus in downtown Oakland bound for UC Berkley, where she was enrolled. But she had no idea in which direction to head. “I had to figure out how to make my way to the Berkley campus,” says Thames, Ph.D., president of El Camino Community College, Torrance, California. “I was not off to a great start, and it was downhill from there.” 

She found the campus but was dismissed after only one year. “When I got to Berkley in that first semester, they told us, 'look to your left and right. One of these people will not be here next year'. I was the one person,” says Dr. Thames. 

Although Berkley more than likely offered support for first-generation college students like Dr. Thames, she didn’t know how to access the service or navigate the financial aid labyrinth. “I was constantly scrambling in that first year to get things in place. I was trying to piece together two or three part-time jobs and find a place to live,” says Dr. Thames. 

She left Berkley and enrolled in Laney College in Oakland, where counselors introduced her to backchannels that allowed her to reenroll at Berkley. “They helped me piece together schedules and figure all that out,” says Dr. Thames. 

During her second stint at Berkley, she excelled, double majoring in sociology and social welfare. “It wasn’t about me or my capacity, it was about learning how to navigate the bureaucracies of higher education,” says Dr. Thames. “That is why I sit here today. That is my why. When I say we offer hope and opportunity here at El Camino, I mean it from the bottom of my heart.”

Building Foundational Support for First-Generation Students

Given her personal experience, the fact that 51 percent of all El Camino students - and 64 percent of its Hispanic students - are first-generation,  Dr. Thames implemented the First-Gen Initiative, a program supporting first-generation students by providing professional development for faculty, staff, and administration so they’re aware of first-generation issues. “We’re very proactive. Students don’t have to come looking for us, we look for them. We make sure the college is prepared to recognize the challenges and strengths first-generation students bring when they come to us. We want to be a college that is ready for first-generation students,” says Dr. Thames.

El Camino, an “equity-focused college,” has several affinity groups providing foundational support on which it has built the First-Gen Initiative. “Our faculty and staff are very involved in those affinity groups and that equity work. We have a social justice center, a black student success center, and a Latinx center coming online this year,” says Dr. Thames. El Camino also has an equity-minded teaching institute, led by faculty for faculty, and an equity and inclusivity subcommittee. “There’s a number of things that faculty and staff are engaged in to keep them involved and invested in keeping equity in the forefront of the first gen work,” says Dr. Thames.

El Camino’s First-Gen Initiative has been recognized by First Forward, the nation's first program acknowledging higher education institutions’ commitment to first-generation student success. In addition, El Camino offers a range of programs geared to first year students. “Faculty and staff take a holistic approach to first-gen students to capture them wherever they are,” says Dr. Thames.

The Importance of Family Support

Someone along the way told Dr. Thames and her parents that if she graduated from Berkley, she could write her own ticket. That proved true. After graduating from Berkley with two bachelor’s degrees, she attended USC, earning master’s degrees in social work and public administration. She landed a job with the Department of Corrections and drifted into education. “I fell in love with it,” she says. She earned her Ph.D. in education from Oregon State. 

Born in California’s Central Valley, Dr. Thames was appointed president of West Hills College, Coalinga in 2017. “I’m from the Central Valley. I went back to serving the folks who supported me and back to my roots,” says Dr. Thames. She stayed for four years before coming to El Camino in July 2021. 

Fifty-three percent of El Camino students are Hispanic. It offers 200 degrees and enrolls about 22,000 students, 72 percent of whom are part-time. El Camino graduates about 40 percent of all its students and about 30 percent of its Hispanic students. 

Focusing particularly on Hispanic students, El Camino offers the Puente Project, encouraging Hispanic students to transfer to four-year colleges, earn their degrees, and then return to the community as leaders and mentors. “Forty-four percent or more of Latino students who participate in the Puente Project are able to transfer to the University of California. The program focuses on a culturally relevant, interdisciplinary approach to teaching English and writing pedagogy, with embedded counselors that belong to a statewide network of Puente Projects at other community colleges. Students get to work with mentors and professionals in career fields. It’s very family oriented,” says Dr. Thames. 

Dr. Thames can’t overstate the importance of involving families in first-generation students’ education journeys. Administrators like to think the school is the “be all, end all,” she says, but in reality, it’s a small piece of a student’s life. Whenever possible, she involves families, the students’ real support. “Often students are working to support their families as well, and they have other obligations and duties at home,” says Dr. Thames. It’s often said, “life gets in the way,” but “lots of time we’re what’s getting in the way,” she says. 

She encourages students and their families to view the school as a partner in their lives. At the end of each school year, the Puente Program at El Camino hosts a dinner thanking families for the opportunity to be a part of the students’ lives. “Families come to celebrate students’ success,” says Dr. Thames. 

Although some CTE areas offer students with associate degrees high-paying jobs, an associate’s degree can’t be a terminal degree in today’s economy, says Dr. Thames. “Transfers have got to be part of the equation at some point,” she says. El Camino provides scaffolding, scalable opportunities, and pathways for its students to further their education. Eighty-four percent of Hispanics at El Camino express a desire to transfer to a four-year program. “We are in the state’s top five in transfer students to CSUs. We are the number five ranked transfer institution to UCLA and the number eleventh ranked for transfers to all UCs,” says Dr. Thames.

El Camino plays a critical role in Southern California’s economy by providing hope and opportunity for Mexican-American, Hispanic, and Latinx students. “As California goes, so goes the nation. We’ve got to continue to serve these students and provide pathways and careers to high-paying jobs to sustain these families, to sustain our communities, to sustain our state and to sustain our nation. That's what we’re here to do, and we’re going to get better and better at doing it,” says Dr. Thames.


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