I recently finished reading two books about First Generation college students (The First Generation Student Experience: Implications for Campus Practice, and Strategies for Improving Persistence and Success by Jeff Davis and First-Generation College Students: Understanding and Improving the Experience from Recruitment to Commencement by Lee Ward, Michael Siegel, and Zebulun Davenport). Each book was a fairly quick read, and both have been on my mind since completing them.
What was quite clear to me from both books (Davis’s book contained more personal narratives, and Ward et al.’s book discussed more institutional strategy) is that what is known about first generation students is that they are hard workers.
I put it out there because I don’t hear a lot of folks in higher education talking about first generation students being hard workers. Rather, if first generation students are spoken about at all, I hear folks identifying things they usually need to “tell” first generation students so that they will “know it” and thus catch up them up to everyone else around them (I, myself, admit to having thought and spoken this way about first generation students). Yes, it is true that there are things that first generation college students might not know about how college works. But I worry a bit that we are missing out on what it is that they do know. Instead, we are too busy trying to fit them into the processes and structures we have in place, which only continues to encourage us to see first generation students as less than other students. The deficit model approach. So, I thought it might be helpful to post three (well, really four if you count what I noted above about first generation students being hard workers, which I most certainly do count) of the key points I read about first generation students that might help to counter such a common approach:
1. Focusing on creating learning environments in which students are shared what they will learn, how it contributes to the mission of the institution, and then have experiences aiming to reach those learning outcomes helps first generation students understand and get on board with the experiences they are participating in. (Incidentally, creating such environments assists non-first generation students too.)
2. First generation students are conscious of the opportunity they are receiving. This is not necessarily how either of the books discussed first generation students approach to their experiences. Instead, they discussed the “imposter phenomenon” and how first generation students are constantly questioning if they should be in college. I chose to re-frame it to highlight the awareness they have of the opportunity they are experiencing (which does include if they are deserving of it–my goal isn’t to leave that out) because in doing I hope to draw attention to the approach many non-first generation students take to their experience, which is more of a taken-for-grantedness.
3. There is no common definition of what it means to be a first generation student. Davis’s book discusses how this is a problem, and Ward et al.’s book selected a definition and used it throughout. I, however, think that there not being a common definition is an opportunity for first generation students to identify for themselves if this is an identity they have and what it means to them.