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A third of students going to college in this country are the first in their families to do so. Few of them will actually graduate on time, if at all. They face a range of challenges, including the lack of support from parents and relatives who don't have experience with higher education that they can share. Claire Trageser of member station KPBS reports on a group helping those students get to campus and to graduation.

CLAIRE TRAGESER, BYLINE: College coach Marisela Chavez sits in her office in San Diego and signs on to Skype. She's calling Jose Diaz, a freshman at California State University, East Bay, near Oakland.

JOSE DIAZ: Hello?

MARISELA CHAVEZ: Jose, how are you?

DIAZ: Not doing so well.

TRAGESER: Diaz just found out that on-campus housing is already full for next year. Chavez jumps into action.

CHAVEZ: If you have time tomorrow, maybe swing by the housing office and find out if you're able to look at what position you are on the waiting list so you can know, you know, if you're third on the waiting list or 300.

DIAZ: Yeah.

TRAGESER: Not getting on-campus housing is the type of dilemma many college students face, but it's also one that could easily derail a student like Diaz. He's the first in his family to go to college, so he can't easily ask his parents what to do.

DIAZ: I only had the thought of going to college. I didn't really know what I had to do. There's so many steps - so many things you had to turn in - you had to know about.

TRAGESER: Just 15 percent of first-generation college students graduate in under six years, according to the Department of Education. If your parents went to college, think about all the things they were able to explain to you - how a syllabus works, how to fill out financial aid forms, how to cope with homesickness, that it's OK to ask a professor for help. That's where Chavez comes in. She's a college coach for the non-profit Juma Ventures. Right now, Juma has offices in six cities, including New York, New Orleans, Seattle and San Diego, and plans to expand. The nonprofit started in 1993, simply to help first-generation college students raise money for school. But it found those students are likely to not make it through to graduation, so Juma recently hired coaches like Chavez to help them get there.

CHAVEZ: Sometimes I'm an academic counselor. Sometimes I'm a cheerleader. Sometimes I'm a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes I'm just that person that keeps pushing them to do more and more.

TRAGESER: Juma only began working with college students a few years ago, so it's too early to know its success rate. Chavez meets weekly with about 25 students, either in person, on Skype, or on the phone. She's also taking on new students like Taylor Lott, a high school senior who's going to the University of Southern California next year. Taylor and her mother, Cassie Hoskins, recently came to Chavez's office with a lot of questions about financial aid.

TAYLOR LOTT: So I was kind of confused because I was worried, like - more loans. I can't do that.

CASSIE HOSKINS: I'm not sure, you know, how that would work. Why would she need loans if she had financial aid? And, you know, I...

TRAGESER: Chavez tells them they could take out a small subsidized loan.

CHAVEZ: If you're going to be borrowing more than, say, $5,000 a year, at that point we really start looking at it as somewhat unmanageable debt.

TRAGESER: Chavez's coaching is rooted in practical dilemmas, but Taylor's mom, Cassie, says it can also be inspirational.

HOSKINS: She started to just blossom. She exploded. She was able to speak before people, and she was able to express herself - the things that she wanted in life. She was able to express her aspirations for college.

TRAGESER: Just like any college student, Taylor Lott and Jose Diaz will become more and more independent as they navigate life on their own. But unlike their classmates whose parents went to college, their experiences will, in some way, separate them from their families. Over Skype, Diaz paints a clear picture of what his life would be like without his coach's help.

DIAZ: Worst case would have been that I'd be forced to move back to Mexico and watch over the land that my family owns down there.

TRAGESER: Coaching ventures like Juma are designed to guide students through college to their new lives beyond, with the eventual goal of preparing them for a time when they won't have coaches and won't need them. For NPR News, I'm Claire Trageser in San Diego.

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