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In the Eyes of a First-Gen Student

How Might a University’s Approach Change if it Centered Students Who are the First in Their Family to Attend a College or University?

This segment has been thoughtfully developed and curated by Ivana Zelaya Avila, our dedicated Graduate Assistant. Ivana is currently pursuing her Master of Science in Higher Education Administration and Policy, bringing a fresh and insightful perspective to our content. Her passion for educational excellence and innovative approaches shine through in the resources and discussions featured here. We hope you find inspiration and valuable insights in this edition.

"Fifty-six percent of all postsecondary students in the U.S. have parents who don’t hold bachelor’s degrees”

Forbes, 2023

Being the First American-Generation and College Student in the Family: A Lived Experience

Submitted by Anonymous Student

No one told me that I could “check” my huge luggage in and didn’t have to carry it through TSA and the endless airport. I mean, yes, I received many weird looks and stares as I held up the TSA line because of my ramen noodle and Hot Cheeto bags, but this was my first time ever going on a plane. Naturally I thought, “They’re the weird ones for just staring.” It wasn’t until the gate that a flight attendant told me they would have to check my bag because of its size. I started panicking because I didn’t have money to pay for that and I thought,“Is this common knowledge?! Where were the signs? How do people know this stuff? Was it my fault that I didn’t know that? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

As a freshman with an immigrant background, I’d ask myself these questions while navigating through my first exposure to higher education. The food on my historically White campus was one of the biggest shockers for me-- what do you mean you don’t have plátanos or rice or beans with every meal?! Eventually, I made it my mission to obtain answers to all my questions because a lot of it seemed like prior knowledge: students knew what Greek life is, where to go to for academic support not just through the institution but through external resources, and the list goes on.

Four years later, after graduating with Honors and enrolling in Graduate school, I know that it wasn’t “my fault” for not knowing these things. The institution played a pivotal role in shaping this experience through the lack of institutional structure needed to retain students like myself. Many of us make it across the stage, but some of us don’t because we don’t receieve the necessary guidance from leadership, professors, and other stakeholders.

Teaching with Inclusivity at the Forefront: Resources for Professors and Educators

Whether you’re aware of students in your class being first-generation or not, it’s important to teach in a way that assumes it’s students’ first exposure to higher education. Below are some resources to consider for an inclusive teaching and learning environment:

Reflection Questions 

  1. How might your syllabus change with first-generation students at the forefront of your class design? Consider textbook access, etc...
  2. In what ways do you incorporate diverse perspectives and experiences, particularly those of first-generation students, into your course content?
  3. What strategies do you use to encourage active participation and engagement from all students, including those who may feel hesitant due to their first-generation status?
  4. How do you communicate expectations and requirements for your courses in a way that is clear and supportive, especially for students who may not have prior exposure to higher education norms?

Continuing the First-Generation Conversation...

The definition of a first-generation college student has evolved over time, reflecting the dynamic nature of higher education and the diversity of student experiences. Initially characterized by students whose parents did not attend college, the concept now encompasses students with unique circumstances. Being a first-gen student is not a homogenous experience, as important factors such as cultural background, socioeconomic status, and access to educational resources also impact a student’s experience. The evolving definition recognizes that first-generation students face multifaceted challenges that cannot be framed as one student experience. As we continue to refine our understanding of first-generation college students, we must consider a nuanced approach that is essential in fostering inclusivity and ensuring that educational institutions cater to the diverse needs of this dynamic student population.

Broader Picture: University Leadership on Institutional Equity

While there is lack of research that investigates governing boards of higher education in their role of diversity, equity, and inclusion, other research argues that if institutional leadership considered culturally sustaining governance (CSG), it could lead to a more equitable approach to institutional decision-making. Research by Rall, Morgan, and Commodore (2020) shows how governing boards who incorporate culturally sustaining governance “facilitates a recognition of decision-making that intentionally prioritizes matters of equity and justice.” In essence, leadership who utilize CSG are able to make decisions on behalf of the institution while simultaneously taking accountability for enhancing access and opportunity for populations that have traditionally been marginalized. This framework urges institutions to not only set forth mission statements and other immeasurable approaches about how inclusive their community is, but rather, include faculty, students, and staff in pivotal decision-making to ensure their needs are being met.

Relfection Questions

  1. How does our institution actively promote diversity and inclusion in faculty and staff recruitment and retention, ensuring representation and perspectives from various backgrounds?
  2. How is the campus actively engaging with external organizations or community groups to enhance support and resources for marginalized students both academically and personally?
  3. How does the institution ensure that campus facilities and services are accessible and accommodating for students with diverse needs, including those with physical disabilities or different cultural backgrounds?
  4. What initiatives are in place to address and eliminate systemic barriers that may disproportionately affect marginalized communities within our academic and administrative structures?