Since day one of her tenure as president of Yavapai College, Dr. Lisa Rhine has endeavored to acknowledge, celebrate and engage a segment of the student population she understands well: students like her who are the first in their families to attend college.

In early 2020, Rhine was on the cusp of bringing first-generation YC students together for fellowship, understanding and support tackling the fears and obstacles many of them uniquely share. The COVID-19 pandemic necessarily derailed the endeavor, but it is now advancing thanks to Arizona Serves/Americorps VISTA appointee Leilani Ramos-Matu’u.

A “first-gen” college student herself and a recent Northern Arizona University graduate in public health, Leilani sought the opportunity to develop YC’s first-generation Roughrider student organization – appropriately dubbed the “First to Ride” – after initially accepting an Americorps/Vista position elsewhere. “I knew YC needed help in this area and having been involved in several first-generation programs at NAU my lived experiences translated well into this position,” she said. “I wanted to help get this initiative off the ground and personally support students in this demographic.”

Born and raised in Phoenix, Leilani credits her parents for supporting her college ambitions and a high school English teacher for helping her apply for and secure scholarships to pay for them. One scholarship funded study-abroad trips to Italy and Ecuador. The travel experiences solidified Leilani’s personal goal -- humanitarian service. “My overall goal in life is to always give back in whatever I do,” she said.

Since joining YC via Americorps in August, Leilani has been researching the college’s first-generation students and preparing for how best to serve them. First-gen students represent about a third of the college’s student population – about 1,500 students countywide -- and they span the spectrum in age, ethnicity and socio-economic backgrounds. Like Leilani and Dr. Rhine, YC’s first-generation college students look to higher education to deliver personal fulfillment and financial security.

“They’re doing what they want and need to do,” Leilani said. “They belong here. Everyone does.”

Dr. Rhine welcomed the launch of the first-generation student program and its alignment with the college’s strategic goals and core values. “As the first person in my family to attend college, the First to Ride initiative is near and dear to my heart. I know, first-hand, the challenges faced and the support needed to make it through an academic journey and none of us make it alone. I’m entirely confident in Leilani’s abilities, ideas and creative mind to jump start this additional student resource,” Dr. Rhine said. “Importantly it, in part, helps to fulfill our strategic priority of Belonging: to strengthen our commitment to individual and organizational efforts to build respect, dignity, caring, equality and self-esteem in all employees and students.”

Besides engendering a sense of belonging and empowerment, bringing first-gen students together at YC aims to prevent them from dropping out when something goes awry at home or school.

At NAU, Leilani said the first-generation student support she received helped her adjust to student life, manage her time and make meaningful connections. “If I wasn’t part of those programs, things would have been difficult,” she said.

The First to Ride initiative at YC officially will be unveiled on Nov. 8 – National First-Generation Student Day -- with an information-sharing event. Attendees will get a sense of the organization’s purpose and structure, learn about plans for the spring and be directed to a wealth of services and resources that can help them overcome almost any hurdle on their way to the college finish line.

“This is something I’m really excited about doing and being a part of,” Leilani said. “I can implement what I already know based on what I needed in college and I can definitely add more based on what we learn about YC first-generation student needs.”

Additional information about YC’s first-generation student initiative is available by emailing Leilani,, or by calling 928-776-2020.