When Natalia Leal – currently the Assistant Director of Multicultural Academic & Support Services for the University of Central Florida – applied for college, she felt completely lost.

Born in the U.S. but raised in Colombia until she was 12, Leal struggled with the language and the college process: “I didn’t understand how it all worked.”

Leal was a first generation college student.

“In Colombia everyone goes to school close to home, so I chose a small college close to home, Rollins College.”

At the time Leal didn’t realize Rollins was so expensive, and she had a difficult time adjusting: “I had a tough time at first because I had to work; I loved the campus and the faculty, but it was hard for me to fit in with the rest of the students there…I felt alone and didn’t know where to turn.”

But then the Director of The Office of Multicultural Affairs at Rollins College noticed her: “Somehow she saw me, and she took me in her office and said that she saw all of these things in me and wanted me to get involved in her office. She believed in me. That’s all it took.”

Leal says that is the story of many of the students who became her friends at Rollins. They all pointed back to the Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs believing in them. “Because of her ability to reach out and notice us individually and connect with us, we were able to find our place on campus.”

That experience inspired Leal to dedicate her professional life to helping other historically underrepresented students in higher education achieve their dreams.

After graduating Rollins with BA in Latin American Studies and Spanish Literature in 2003 and the University of Florida with an M.Ed in Student Personnel in Higher Education in 2006, Leal worked as the Program Director for Multiculturalism at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and then as the Director for the Institute of Hispanic Latino Cultures at UF.

Today, Leal is pursuing her PhD in Public Affairs and works for the University of Central Florida – the 2nd largest university in the U.S. with a Fall 2011 enrollment of 58,698, and a 17% Latino population – and manages programs, like the First Generation Scholarship, that help multicultural students find their place and succeed on campus.

Hispanic Outlook Magazine named UCF #8 in the Top 100 Colleges Awarding Degrees to Hispanics in 2011. UCF offers orientation in Spanish, and recently added an undergraduate program in Latin American Studies.

UCF’s Multicultural Academic and Support Services Office (MASS) represents services that are popular around the country to better acclimate the growing minority - and historically underrepresented - populations in higher education.

Many multicultural students, like Leal, are the first in their family to attend college.

To apply for UCF’s First Generation Scholarship program – funded by a Target grant - students are required to attend six MASS programs and four other campus programs, such as a resume review with the career center.

Each year there are over 60 MASS programs, such as workshops like “My Parents Just Don’t Understand,” a First Generation Speaker series that has included first generation professionals like Dr.G Medical Examiner, and undergraduate research presentations.

Cierra Winston attended many of these programs and was one of the First Generation Scholarship winners. Daughter of a teenage mom, Winston saw her mom “work tirelessly” growing up. Winston started working at age 14 to help provide for her family.

“UCF’s First Generation program has been a true blessing to both my academic success and experience on campus,” Winston said. “The faculty and staff running the program truly are concerned with not only the academic achievements of the students, but are genuinely interested in their well-being.” Winston will graduate UCF December 2013 with a BA in International and Global Studies.

In addition to the First Generation scholarship program, MASS also provides a mentorship program for multicultural males called Brother to Brother, a College Prep Day for multicultural and first generation middle and high school students and their parents, a Community College Day to welcome transfers, and a Lunch and Learn program that encourages students to get to know faculty members by providing a free lunch voucher to students who invite a faculty member out to lunch.

Adalis Molina, a First Generation Scholarship winner and Health Sciences major explains how important these programs have been to her success: “UCF’s MASS Programs have impacted my life tremendously. They provided the support I needed and motivated me to follow my dreams.”

Isa Adney is a Fox News Latino Education and Community Columnist and the author of Community College Success (NorLights Press, 2012), available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. She advises students across the country on how to break socio-economic barriers and build positive educational communities. You can connect with Isa on Twitter, Facebook, and www.isaadney.com.

For story ideas e-mail isa at isaadney@gmail.com

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