UC Davis is helping students in poverty.

Helping First-Gen, Low-Income College Students Rise Above
Associate Professor Gina Dokko goes back to her roots with Bay Area nonprofit

One teenager witnessed her father’s murder. Another was abandoned. One girl, alone, cared for her disabled mother. Education was their way out, but a cultural divide lay ahead, along with the guilt of leaving loved ones behind.

Students Rising Above (SRA) is guiding these first-generation, low-income students through college, showing them how to survive aspects of higher education not taught in the classrooms. The students are overcoming poverty, homelessness and neglect. Among the SRA network of professional volunteers is Gina Dokko, an associate professor at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management.

“Their work is really right in line with what UC Davis hopes to accomplish,” says Dokko, who recently led a business development workshop for SRA. “Fifty-three percent of the incoming class at UC Davis is first-generation students and that’s just mind-blowing to me.”

In the Bay Area program for SRA, at least 26 of the 490 students are attending UC Davis.

Finding Passion in Helping Passionate People

Dokko relates to these challenges. She was two years old when she emigrated from South Korea to the U.S. with her parents.

“When I went to college I had no idea what was going on. It was a shocking experience,” says Dokko. “I wasn’t socially qualified at all and missing cues to the way that middle class people live and all their cultural codes.”

When SRA put out a call a year ago asking its mentors for help with organizational development, Dokko landed a direct tie-in to her UC Davis expertise. She researches theory and behavior in organizations. In the two years since she first volunteered as a mentor, Dokko has met with a few of the SRA students to share some one-on-one advice over coffee. One of those students is now finishing college and just got her first job offer, for a marketing analytics position.  

But Dokko had yet to be assigned her own student to mentor. Hosting a business development workshop was her way in.

Steering the Staff Who Drive the Mission

Dokko visited SRA’s office in San Francisco on a recent October day and led a two-hour session about giving and receiving feedback. She began with a short discussion on the basics, touched on theory and reviewed case studies, with a deeper dive into applying effective feedback in the day-to-day.

“It was Feedback 101, elevated and applied to our unique situation,” says Vanessa Barbic, an SRA program manager. “In fact, I think [during the week following the workshop] I’ve given feedback every single day.”

“I wasn’t socially qualified at all and missing cues to the way that middle class people live”

While SRA is on a fast track for growth, the organization would not be able to afford this level of targeted and professional training on its own. Dokko says she was delighted to have helped the staff with their mission in whatever way she could.

“She’s so authentic and she brought a very realistic voice and it was great that she brought her 15 years of experience from the industry,” said Heather MacKenzie, SRA communications manager. “She also brought some insight as a woman working in the business world.”

Nurturing Future Aggies

At UC Davis, Dokko chairs the Graduate School of Management’s diversity committee for the faculty and is looking for ways the UC Davis community can engage with SRA on more levels.

“If we can make a linkage with an organization like this, maybe we can make some longer term partnerships and help these students to become Aggies in the future,” she says.