10 things to consider about first-generation students

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First-generation UChicago at November 18 event with Kevin Jennings.

A few weeks ago Kevin Jennings, the founder of the Harvard First Generation Alumni group and mentoring program, came to the University of Chicago to give a talk about first-gen students at selective colleges. Based on the talk, I made this list of the top 10 things people should consider about first-gen students, particularly at more selective colleges.

  1. Application process is different for first-gen students because of difference in support: While first-gen students need more support during the college application process, they are often the ones receiving the least. Due to huge disparities in counselor to student ratios depending on where you go to school, navigating the process can often be a lonely endeavor. As a first-gen student, I did 90% of college apps by myself. Colleges can do intentional outreach to first-gens once admitted to provide them with necessary resources and information.
  2. First encounters with the university can be alienating: Jennings spoke about the admitted student reception being his first encounters with elitism at Harvard. As a first-gen, working class student, the extravagant set-up didn’t seem to be meant for a student of his background. Jennings said, “Students end up feeling like they are there to serve than be served.” How do universities send messages that wealth and privilege is the norm?
  3. Picking a major is not always straightforward: All students struggle with picking a major, but these difficulties may be amplified if you are a first-gen student. If no one has ever talked to you about majors, how do you choose one? It’s not as simple as picking a major based on what you’re interested in. I loved reading everything from gender studies to history, but interest doesn’t necessarily translate into an academic major. It’s far more complex and universities don’t always provide the right level of support for first-gen students.
  4. Familial responsibility often weighs heavily: For many first-gen students, the desire to give back to their families plays a big role in determining what to study. Making money, not personal fulfillment, can seem like the biggest priority. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but students need more support in navigating two worlds that often uphold competing values. A Princeton student sums this up perfectly in a recent column.
  5. Creating a network is essential: During his talk, Jennings mentioned the importance of intentionally helping students create a network, not only for career purposes but also for social support. Many universities operate under the belief that students will build this serendipitously. For first-gen students that may not have the same social capital, it is more essential to help students create those relationships.
  6. There is great diversity in the first-gen category: “First-generation” is such a broad term and encompasses a wide variety of students and experiences. Jennings divided first-gen students among three categories, largely in terms of educational background: students who went to public high schools, students who went to a private high school on a scholarship, and international students. Jennings believes that the student who went to private school on a scholarship has it easiest among all first-gen students at more selective colleges. Those schools would have prepared them academically and are socially similar, so elite schools won’t be a culture shock for them. While it’s tough to generalize, there’s something to be said about Jennings’ points. As a UChicago student, it was easier to relate to first-gen students who also went to public high schools. These differences shouldn’t be used to divide, but rather used to avoid casting students into a wide net.
  7. You can’t reduce people to only one identity: Along the same lines of the last point, many identity factors intersect with the first-generation one. When discussing first-generation students, we must take an intersectional approach. Race, class, gender, sexuality, etc, will all have a bearing on the ways in which first-gen students experience college and in the type of support they need.
  8. First-gen students are not only students who face first-gen problems: Every student struggles in college to some degree, it’s the difference in support that impacts how well they can manage. Some students who are not first-gen may find themselves experiencing similar issues. Some services should be exclusively for first-generation students, but open-participation should be encouraged whenever possible. Whether it be an open discussion or social, other students should be given the opportunity to join in if they find the topics relatable to their own experiences.
  9. Advocacy skills may differ: Asking for help might be so ingrained in some students, but it isn’t the case all around. Social class dynamics play a huge role in how students end up interacting with teachers in the classroom. Jessica Calarco, a professor at Indiana University, recently published research on this very topic. She found that middle class students are taught to reach out to teachers and ask questions, while working class students are taught that asking questions is disrespectful. First-generation, low-income students might not be used to asking for help, which creates a gap in the classroom.
  10. We need open conversations about first-gen students/social class: We need spaces where we can learn about first-gen students and understand the impact of social class. Without those spaces, universities will continue to send the message that their institutions are only spaces for the privileged. Inclusion means acknowledging diverse identities.
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