“Uplifting and centralizing first generation students’ experiences is important because they affect the policies and changes that our institutions make,” says Dr. LaTonya Rease Miles, the Dean of Student Affairs at Menlo College.

Higher education practitioners have a role to play in helping all students succeed, but that role is of critical importance for first generation students as they face unique challenges. Their success requires different but no less consistent effort.

What does success look like for first generation college students? To start, it may be more helpful to understand the common definitions and narratives surrounding first generation students.

Defining the “first generation” college student

The Federal TRIO Programs (TRIO) are responsible for supporting college-seeking individuals considered disadvantaged. Many institutions use grants from TRIO programs to benefit their students. Among the many disadvantaged students these programs serve are first generation college students. According to the legislation for TRIO programs, a first generation student is defined as:

  1. an individual both of whose parents did not complete a baccalaureate degree, or
  2. in the case of any individual who regularly resided with and received support from only one parent, an individual whose only such parent did not complete a baccalaureate degree.

This definition is standard, but according to Dr. Rease Miles, it’s also changing at many colleges. As the understanding of first generation student experiences becomes more nuanced, the definition grows to be more inclusive.

Challenges first generation college students face

Aside from a lack of collegiate experience to draw on, first generation students grapple with unique obstacles during their educational journey. When institutions have limited definitions of what it means to be first generation, these students may, as Dr. Kangala mentions, rule themselves out.

For instance, Asian American students can be disproportionately impacted by strict definitions of first generation, as their parents could have received certificates or higher education outside the United States.

Similarly, Black students at institutions of higher education may be grouped together, and thus less importance may be placed on their being first generation. This can cause them to miss out on the unique support and policies institutions have in place to help first generation college students.

How to better serve first generation college students

Below are six recommendations from Dr. Rease Miles and Dr. Kangala on how to create first generation student services programs that lift up first generation students to help them be successful:

1. Identify your champions. While centralizing students’ voices is an important step to creating a successful program, they should not be the only voices. According to Dr. Rease Miles, “if the primary champion of your first gen student program on campus is a student, there’s going to be problems.”

Senior level administrators like Presidents, Vice Presidents, and Chancellors must be vocal supporters of your program. Their interactions with and vocal support for first generation students has a positive effect on how students perceive themselves and their abilities.

2. Take care of yourself. When it comes to supporting first generation students, “it’s easy to get overwhelmed,” says Dr. Kangala. “If you aren’t taking care of yourself first, you can’t give your best for your students.”

Self-care is an often-neglected but critical aspect of professional life, especially for higher education practitioners. Take time for your own mental and physical wellbeing, and the benefits will extend to your students.

3. Embrace social media. Getting your first generation program on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and the multitude of available platforms enables you to connect with students where they are.

As a practitioner, if you are inexperienced with social media or feel uncomfortable using it, offer a part-time social media management position to willing students. This allows you to leverage students’ expertise with social media platforms while allowing you to manage your first generation program’s high-level messaging and strategy.

4. Find new ways to connect. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to get comfortable connecting with each other digitally and in different ways. Use these skills. Rethink how you connect with students.

Instead of the traditional in-person office hours and back-and-forth emails, expand your outlook on communicating with students. Set up time for virtual office hours. Create opportunities for one-on-one phone calls. Build online discussion boards to interact with classmates.

First generation students may be reluctant to reach out or admit they need help, so providing a variety of methods to connect can let them decide which they’re most comfortable with.

5. Partner with student career services. Take note from Haverford College’s definition: many first generation college students choose to go to college to better their socioeconomic mobility and find better career opportunities.

Make sure to work in tandem with your career services office, if you have one. They can help you streamline your first generation students’ paths from education to the workforce.

6. Call on your alumni. According to Dr. Kangala, many first generation students struggle with biased master narratives about what they can and cannot achieve. They may struggle to find successful role models to whom they can relate.

Connect with your school’s alumni — in particular its first generation graduates—with your current students. Contact alumni organizations and begin forging mentor-mentee relationships between graduates and students.

Ensuring first generation college students’ success

First generation students grapple with “master narratives” that are tied to aspects of their identity. These master narratives are entrenched, dominant stock stories related to the educational achievement of underserved students, based on longstanding and ongoing deficit views. “The narratives that we buy into, we perpetuate,” says Dr. Kangala. This understanding is crucial to understanding how to effectively help and support first generation students.

Practitioners have an important role in setting up first generation students for success, including helping the students help themselves. “Higher education faculty and staff need to be cultural translators,” Dr. Kangala goes on to say. “We need to help first generation students draw upon their unique backgrounds and the challenges they’ve overcome just getting to college.”

By helping first generation students use their previous experiences and independence, practitioners can help them overcome the challenges they face in college.

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