How do we “view” our first-generation students? Who are they and what identities and backgrounds do they bring with them to the classroom beyond their first-generation status?
From childhood memories of hanging out in academic offices to late night co-working sessions decades later as a graduate student, growing up with a mother who was a professor meant that many of my formative experiences were in and around Ball State’s campus. For me, it also meant developing an awareness of the privileged position I was in: a student who came from a family of academics at a university that was in many ways more home than school. But for many in higher education who are the first in their families to pursue college, this familiarity with academia is less accessible. And it is the awareness of that privilege that has made me curious and want to learn more about this gap in my understanding that so many of our students have experienced.
Who are First-Generation Students?
According to the Ball State University Fall 2022 Student Profile, of our 13,516 enrolled undergraduate students, 4,701 indicated that they were first-generation college students. This means that approximately 35% of the current undergraduate students at our university are the first in their families to navigate the waters of higher ed. But who are these students?
Honestly, answering this question from Ball State data of first-generation students is a challenge, and it merits a deeper dive. However, by looking at existing research and literature about the subject in general, we can begin to draw deeper conclusions about this portion of the student population.
In their scholarship, “Breaking Down Barriers: Academic Obstacles of First-Generation Students at Research Universities,” authors Michael J. Stebleton and Krista M. Soria provide one such profile of first-generation students, basing it on previous research studies. In their profile, they emphasize that first-generation students are “more likely than their non-first-generation counterparts to have additional characteristics that may serve as a disadvantage as they pursue their college education” (8). Specifically, they have a greater likelihood of:
- being older
- coming from minority backgrounds
- having a disability
- being non-native English speakers
- being single parents
- being financially independent from their parents
- having lower levels of academic preparation
- frequently needing to be employed to help pay for education and cost-of-living expenses
The challenges faced by first-gen students are reiterated by Noel et al. in their article, “Depressive and Anxiety Symptoms in First Generation College Students,” where the researchers connected these obstacles faced by first-generation students to the increased presence of anxiety symptoms. They posit that one connection between these first-generation challenges and anxiety is stress, specifically “acculturative stress,” which is stress “experienced during the cultural adaptation process” (5). Put simply, characteristics of first-generation students can create obstacles as students try to adapt to the culture of higher education, and the stress of those obstacles can create an increased likelihood of anxiety symptoms.
A critical issue is the way in which these myriad challenges compound and layer upon one another. As an example, Stebleton and Soria explain that “first generation students may have both job and family responsibilities in addition to weak study skills—factors that, when combined, may cause even greater challenges to reaching their goals” (13).
This intersectionality is echoed by Rashné Jehangir, an associate professor of higher education and founding director of the First Gen Institute at the University of Minnesota, in a conversation from Inside Higher Ed. Jehangir points to the need for more specific institutional data on first-generation students, asking “To what extent do our own programs and campuses intersect data on first-gen students with other social identities like race and/or social class?” This intersectionality underlines the hidden complexity of the first-generation experience. For many first-generation students, their identity as first-generation is only one of potentially many marginalized identities.
And this last point is the one that caught me off guard the most when I began researching this topic. In academia, there is always a risk of thinking about our first-generation students purely in terms of academics—how do we help them with university resources, how do we help them develop study skills, how do we help them acclimate to and navigate the complexities of the academy, etc. However, as this research seems to indicate, there’s more to a first-generation student’s identity beyond academics and there’s more to the obstacles before them than just their family’s academics.
All of our students have different academic identities and histories, but how often do we consider the ways in which those things intersect with other social and cultural backgrounds outside of the academy? For many students, their non-academic identities afford them privileges in our wider culture, and those privileges bleed into educational settings where these students don’t face the same challenges or burdens as their less culturally privileged peers. And, while we’re perhaps accustomed to being aware of this issue when it comes to things like race, gender, or sexuality, research suggests that first-generation status, complete with all its complexity and intersectionality, is one such area where more awareness is merited.
However, even if we have a sense of who first-generation students are, the question becomes “What can we do to help them?” Director of Instructional Consultation at Ball State and fellow blog writer Cheri Madewell has some suggestions to answer that question, and I plan to provide some of my own suggestions in future blog posts, but, for now and for myself, I want to keep a reflective eye on what I take for granted and the assumptions I make. Though I’ve been familiar with the concept of first-generation students for some time, that familiarity hadn’t gone deep enough to consider the specifics surrounding who they were and the complex, intersectional challenges they often face. Like any issue related to inclusion, I think the first step is often an exploration and recognition of what we don’t know, but what about you?
How do you see your students, first-generation in particular? What identities and backgrounds do they bring with them to the classroom? What do we gain from doing this kind of self-reflection?
Jehangir, Rashné, and Tai Do. “Why Institutional Narratives About First-Gen Students Matter.” Inside Higher Ed. August 30, 2022. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2022/08/30/conversation-first-gen-student-belonging-and-identities-opinion#.Y1GqsETg60Y.link.
Noel, Jonathan K., Haleigh A. Lakhan, Cara J. Sammartino, and Samantha R. Rosenthal. “Depressive and anxiety symptoms in first generation college students.” Journal of American College Health (2021): 1-10.
Stebleton, Michael J., and Krista M. Soria. “Breaking down Barriers: Academic Obstacles of First-Generation Students at Research Universities.” Learning Assistance Review 17, no. 2 (2012): 7-20.