First-Generation College Students, and How to Serve Them Better

With the dawn of the fall quarter/semester upon us, it’s important for us to remember the diverse populations we might teach and how to prepare them better for life at the university and beyond. In preparation for an early fall start class at UW (ENGL 108), we were tasked with thinking about our student population, which mostly consists of international students and some domestic students. We were asked to read one article (among a few others). In “The Struggle to Be First: First-Gen Students May Be Torn Between College and Home,” Alina Tugend explains the trials and tribulations that many first-generation college students face. In this article, Tugend interviews a handful of first-generation students at Berkeley and educational professionals who work with first-generation students. Simply put, first-generation college students face unique challenges that are not faced by second and subsequent generation college students.

One of the causes I enthusiastically champion is the plight of the first-generation college student. I’m incredibly passionate about teaching first-generation college students (both domestic and international) because of my own experiences in undergraduate and graduate school. Being a first-generation college student myself, I know first-hand what many of these students are going through in their first year of college and even throughout their entire college experience. I was born and raised in a small town in rural Mississippi with a population of 2500 and graduated with only 69 people in my senior class. I have several family members who do not even have high school diplomas, let alone college degrees. I am fortunate enough to have parents who valued education for my brother and I, and with their guidance, emotional, and financial support, I was able to attend a four-year institution and eventually pursue graduate school. Not everyone who is first-generation has this incredible amount of support, as two of my former students who were first-generation have already left the UW—one student for reasons he would not disclose and another student whose parents did not want to take financial responsibility for her.

My understanding of the cultural divide that exists between insiders and outsiders in academia has had a profound effect on how I teach students and the type of rigorous education I want students to have in my courses. I have taught several first-generation students (both ELLs and domestic students), and helping them navigate the terrain of academia is perhaps one of the more rewarding experiences in teaching. I bring this experience and first-hand knowledge in to my classroom and try my best to help both first-generation and multi-generational college students navigate the difficult and uneven terrain of academia, especially the dimensions that many take for granted (financial aid, fellowships, campus work programs, tutoring centers, academic programs, etc.). One of the ways that I gauge my student population is simply asking my class on the first or second day who might be first-generation, as I believe mentoring these students early on in the quarter is imperative for their success. I also share my own experiences with these students (office hours and conferences, for instance) in order to show them that it is, in fact, possible for them to complete their degrees and even pursue graduate education. 

One dimension of the conversation about first-generation college students that rarely receives attention is how higher education can become a source of alienation from one’s family. Speaking from my own experiences, higher education has been both a proverbial blessing and a curse in that higher education has opened up many opportunities in my personal and professional life, but it has also alienated me from my family and friends back home. I would describe this as a type of Du Boisian ‘double consciousness’ in the sense that first-gen college students are navigating two very different worlds—that of the university culture and that of their home cultures (Jesmyn Ward, in her memoir Men We Reaped, explains this phenomena much more eloquently than I). In the Berkeley article, Amy Baldwin explains, “It’s not just understanding the logistics, it’s feeling comfortable enough to engage in all parts of college life.” Isolation and the feeling of being a cultural outsider to college life largely because one’s parents did not attend four-year institutions puts first-gen students at a severe disadvantage often not faced by those students whose parents did attend four year institutions. Without having the support of insider cultural knowledge that is often gained through college-educated parents, first-generation college students often miss out on how to be at the university, including social activities. This is something I experienced as well because I was not sure of my place at the university, and this feeling of cultural outsiderness has carried over with me to graduate school (despite being in my sixth year of graduate school). As Baldwin puts it, “A campus really needs to understand the challenges of first-generation. It’s like going to a different country” (emphases added). I would very much agree with this sentiment because it is only by being a cultural insider to campus culture does one obtain “academic” or “educational capital.”  

One blind spot to this discussion (and one that I’m considering pursuing post-dissertation) is how non-elite institutions such as my own undergraduate institution may (or may not) perform a disservice to first generation college students. I’m intrigued that elite institutions might be better at being aware of the unique problems faced by first-generation students. I’m slightly skeptical that the UW, however, is as aware of these issues as it could be. My original dissertation idea was writing an ethnography of first-generation college students and how they navigated elite institutions. Perhaps an article (or two) will come to fruition in the coming years.

Another blind spot to this article that needs to be addressed is the definition of who is considered a first-generation college student. Many institutions define first-generation differently. The most inclusive definition is the one offered by ImFirst.org: “While there is no universal definition for ‘first-generation college student’ and much of the research uses the definition ‘a student with neither parent having any education beyond high school,’ we choose to define a first-generation college student as ‘neither parent having received a four-year college degree” (emphases added). So, if we want to be allies in making sure that first-generation college students stay and complete their degrees in a suitable timeline, we need to first be sure that students understand what first-generation means. I think some students get lost in the web of definitions (I did). I personally had no idea I was a first-generation college student until graduate school (yes!) because no one told me or did any of my professors raise this as a unique aspect of my experiences at the university. As teachers, I think it’s important for us to be sure that a more inclusive idea of first-generation is disseminated and that our students understand the unique challenges that all first-generation college students endure at elite and non-elite institutions alike.

Recommended sources:

·      http://www.imfirst.org/

·      http://www.imfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/FAQ.pdf  http://thedartmouth.com/2014/10/15/colleges-differ-in-first-generation-definitions/ and https://professionals.collegeboard.com/guidance/prepare/first-generation

·      Alina Tugend, “The Struggle to Be First,” http://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/spring-2015-dropouts-and-drop-ins/struggle-be-first-first-gen-students-may-be

·      Stony Brook University First-Generation Students, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXFLQ6tp8Qs

·      Karin Fischer, “The Chinese Mother’s American Dream” (July 6, 2015), http://chronicle.com/article/The-Chinese-Mothers-American/231239/?key=HG52JgFuNXFINy1nZm5FbzlSaXNlYUwvNXlMPyl9blBXFQ==