A few weeks ago, I introduced the 8 correlates of First Gen success (social support, academic support, financial aid, mentorship, engagement, personal motivation, positive self-concept, and sense of belonging). Those of you who are First Gen or work with First Gen students are probably aware that many of these correlates are related. Providing support in just one area will likely not make much of an impact. If someone is having financial difficulties and their school only provides financial aid to cover the costs of tuition, the school is ignoring the reality of having to pay for housing, books, food, material costs, etc. That student might then have to get a part-time job, which will mean they have less time to participate in student organizations and engage with the campus community, less time to attend office hours and academic support services, and more psychological stress. This is why comprehensive programs that address many of the eight correlates at the same time are vital for helping First Gen students thrive.
I’ll focus on two recent articles that highlight how and why comprehensive support programs help First Gen students. Means and Pyne (2017) examined data from a 10 participant, qualitative (interview-based) study that followed low-income, first generation college students through their first year of college. Though the researchers’ focus was on sense of belonging, they were able to identify what the participants considered effective components of institutional support. The other is a report released by The Center for First-Generation Student Success (The Center) that used a mixed method (qualitative and quantitative) approach on a national sample of key stakeholders at institutions of higher education to identify how universities are currently supporting First Gen students and to offer suggestions for future efforts based on their findings.
Both articles made it clear that a comprehensive program should include social support, financial support, academic support, faculty engagement, mentoring and advising, and high impact educational practices. Furthermore, The Center report emphasizes that a comprehensive approach that is tailored for the specific needs of First Gen students keeps those students from getting bounced from office to office in search of help. Additionally, such a comprehensive approach lets First Gen students know that they are recognized and valued on campus.
Financial support is one of the most obvious ways to reduce the burden on First Gen students because it helps relieve stress and provides more opportunities for students to engage in campus life. However, financial support on its own is not enough. Means and Pyne (2017) found that scholarship programs that were cohort-based and provided a mentoring component were more positively received by students because they reduced financial stress but also provided an avenue for social support. The Center found that some university programs provide a monetary incentive for engaging in First Gen programming as a way to offset the cost of having to miss work to attend these events.
Both articles articulated the importance of having a physical resource center as well as a sense of community in efforts to help First Gen students succeed. Having a student organization and a center or office that focuses the First Gen identity can provide access to supportive staff, interaction with others who have similar circumstances and experiences, and provide spaces that increase social-cultural awareness of the First Gen identity, challenge internalized oppression, and encourage advocacy and social justice efforts (Means & Pyne, 2017). Access to social identity groups can be especially important for students who have intersecting identities (Whitley, Benson & Wesaw, 2018). However, it is important to note that, if these spaces do not actively address issues of racism and classism and do not have institutional support, they do not serve as the supportive and comfortable places they are meant to be (Means & Pyne, 2017). Peer mentoring is another source of social support in which students can connect to upperclassman who are familiar with the struggles of navigating the campus environment (Whitley, Benson & Wesaw, 2018).
The reality of many First Gen students is that they are coming to college from environments where they lacked access to rigorous college preparatory classes and are entering a system that does not value the inherent assets of First Gen students. These perceived First Gen deficits are easily addressed through positive interactions with faculty members who understand the sociocultural factors that impact the First Gen experience, accessible campus resources centers for tutoring and writing, and quality advising (Means & Pyne, 2017). Simply acknowledging that the skills that helped students thrive in high school - recall and basic comprehension - are no longer sufficient in a university setting that expects students to connect and apply concepts will help alleviate some negative internalization that may occur if students are not performing well academically.
Furthermore, if faculty and support staff can approach First Gen students from an asset, or strengths-based, perspective, it will help students feel seen and valued (Whitley, Benson & Wesaw, 2018). Supportive faculty are key to First Gen success because they can reach out to and encourage students to attend office hours, develop mentoring relationships, and incorporate opportunities for student engagement during class (Means & Pyne, 2017). Identifying First Gen faculty and highlighting their stories through formal or informal events will also help First Gen students recognize themselves in academia and provide relatable role models.
Another component of a comprehensive program would be incorporating high impact educational practices. These include any educational opportunities that allow students to immerse themselves in the experience, practically apply what they have been learning, and connect their learning with a larger purpose or meaning. Some examples include study abroad opportunities, service learning, learning communities, collaborative projects, research, and internships (Means & Pyne, 2017; Whitley, Benson & Wesaw, 2018).
If you are currently a First Gen student, find out if your college or university offers any comprehensive programs to support your First Gen identity or use the points listed in this article to create your own, individualized First Gen action plan to support your journey. Also, check out the universities/colleges that have been recognized as First Forward Institutions for their work in supporting First Gen students.
If you are a First Generation professional and wondering how you can apply some of these factors in your career, you can create your own action plan that highlights mentoring, engagement, social support, and high impact activities. The first step would be trying to create a mentoring relationship with someone in your field. It could be someone from your current workplace, from a past workplace, or even a professional organization. It can be intimidating to reach out to someone who is in a high-powered position, but even peer mentoring can provide access to information and resources. Joining professional organizations will also expose you to different networks, and opportunities, and create a path for leadership experiences. In terms of high impact activities, find ways participate on group projects, committees, outreach efforts, or professional development. Lastly, social support will always be a way to find validation and empathy. Some workplaces have created First Gen affinity groups to meet this need. If you aren’t fortunate enough to work in one of these places, consider sharing your First Gen identity to begin to build community or simply commiserate with other first gens in your social circle.
In the next episode, I’ll be highlighting a stellar program that supports First Gen students in the bay area, Making Waves Foundation, College & Alumni Program (CAP).
Means, D. R. & Pyne, K. B. (2017). Finding my way: Perceptions of institutional support and belonging in low-income, first-generation, first-year college students. Journal of College Student Development, 58, 907-924. doi:10.1353/csd.2017.0071
Whitley, S. E., Benson, G., & Wesaw, A. (2018). First-generation Student Success: A Landscape Analysis of Programs and Services at Four-year Institutions. Washington, DC: Center for First-generation Student Success, NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and Entangled Solutions. https://firstgen.naspa.org/2018-landscape-analysis