MORAGA

Anton Smith had all kinds of questions for the college students who showed him and his middle school classmates around Saint Mary's College last month: Are there social cliques? Do you and your roommates get along? What are the professors like? How big are the classes? What will you do when you graduate?

"Man, I want to be in college now," the 14-year-old said to a friend as he followed the group from one building to the next at the small school in the East Bay hills.

Anton and his peers at St. Martin de Porres, a Catholic school with a middle school campus in West Oakland, are still at least four years away from enrolling in a university. In the meantime, they will take part in a three-year research project at Saint Mary's — a study of students who dream of being the first in their families to graduate from college.

Anthropology professor Dana Herrera and sociology professor Phylis Martinelli are studying the factors that drive those students to — and deter them from — that goal.

Part anthropology, part sociology and part public service, the initiative was launched by the year-old Center for First Generation to College Studies, which Herrera and Martinelli direct.

"We're here to add a little focus to the dreams of these students," Herrera said.

Herrera and Martinelli teach an undergraduate course that focuses on the norms and values of university life and how those values shape the college experience, particularly for students whose parents didn't graduate from a four-year college in the United States.

As part of their fieldwork, Saint Mary's students will collect oral histories from the 65 St. Martin de Porres children participating in the project. They will also serve as guides and mentors, Herrera said. Many are first-generation college students themselves.

It seems fitting for Saint Mary's to explore issues of college access and retention; about 35 percent of the freshmen who enrolled there in 2008 were first-generation college students. The college only recently has begun to track the success of those students, so their graduation rates weren't available. But according to figures provided by the college's department of institutional research, 85 percent of last year's first-generation freshmen returned for a second year, compared with 79 percent of their peers.

On the day they met their college "buddies," St. Martin de Porres students spent hours on the campus. They toured the academic buildings and dorms and sampled the dining hall fare. They split into classrooms for a lecture by a Saint Mary's professor. Then, in small groups, the student-researchers asked them to share their goals, study habits and academic interests.

The project might prove to be a recruitment tool as well as worthwhile research for the college. While some of the St. Martin de Porres students said they would like to attend a larger university, others said they could see themselves right there — away from home, but not too far.

"It's really a good atmosphere," Anton said. "The trees, the plants, the fresh air. "... This is definitely one of my top choices."

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.ibabuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.