When it's tough to be first
First-generation college students must navigate a series of unfamiliar paths
First-gen college students (Todd Wright, Blend Images / April 12, 2012)
- Friends' value only increases with age
- One child, plenty of company
- Colleges and Universities
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- Jeff Davis
Aurora University, 347 S Gladstone Ave, Aurora, IL 60506-4892, USA
Sonoma State University, 1801 E Cotati Ave, Rohnert Park, CA 94928, USA
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, University of Minnesota - Minneapolis, 3 Morrill Hall, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA
And kids listened. College enrollment has never been higher, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
But as more young people move beyond high school, the unique challenges that often face first-generation college students are becoming more apparent. A 2010 NCES study found a wide gap in the graduation rates between four-year students whose parents earned degrees (69 percent) and those whose parents never went to college (40 percent).
(In most circles, a first-generation student is defined as one who had neither parent graduate from a four-year school. Income, race and ethnicity are not factors.)
Marcia Hanlon, director of counseling at Aurora University, says that throughout high school, these students get pumped up about college.
"But when they get here, wow, it's different from high school," Hanlon says.
The realization can hit when the student gets that first syllabus. Confusion, uncertainty, frustration, fear ... all the emotions kick in. Then comes the question: Who can I talk to? For first-generation students, the answer can be elusive, for college — both the campus and the concept — is such unfamiliar territory.
"I kind of see this as an alien landscape," says Rashne Rustom Jehangir, author of "Higher Education and First Generation Students: Cultivating Community, Voice, and Place for the New Majority" (Palgrave MacMillan). "You don't have a guidebook and you don't have people around you to tell you what the language is."
Even your professors don't always speak the same language. Jeff Davis, author of "The First Generation Student Experience" (Stylus), estimates that when he started as an adjunct professor of English at Sonoma State University 15 years ago, "half the professors didn't know what the term was. Many in student support didn't have the same definition in mind.
"A lot of the barriers to success that first-generation status promotes are sort of invisible," says Davis, who was himself a first-gen student.
Another drawback may be the very family members who pushed a student toward college. With no college experience, they may not know what it entails. A student may have only three hours of class a day, they figure, so why can't he or she get a full-time job or baby-sit siblings?
"A faculty member told me about a (commuter student) whose father didn't want her out at night," Hanlon recalls, "and wouldn't let her come to the library to work with other students. The faculty member talked to the father and explained what she needed to do to succeed in class. Then it was OK."
Two different worlds
Students often find themselves torn. Rashne, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, says that these students are forced to negotiate with multiple worlds.
"First-gen students are more likely to be older, to be parents, to be students of color and nonspeakers of English," she says. "So even before college they had multiple roles. They were supporting their families, they were the cultural brokers. Then they get in this alien world and you really feel you can't go home again. You're an interloper in this new world, but you can't go back to your old world."
This one-foot-in-each-world idea can be an asset, though. These students are much more career-oriented; they're in school to get a better job. And Hanlon says that some, especially students from low-income families, are often more resilient.
"They've had to cope with a lot of difficulties," she says. "They need to translate that to a campus environment."
Again, though, college administrators often do the students no favors.
"So much of the way we frame these students is through a deficiency model," Rashne says. "The schools think, 'How do we retain them? How do we deal with what is perceived as lower academic preparation?' But in many ways by the nature of the experiences they've had, things they've done in life, they've managed and negotiated a lot of different environments: work, home, school.