First Generation Students: Academic Transitions

There are a multitude of challenges that first generation students face when it comes to academic achievement in higher education and based on the fact that 20% of today’s college students (and ever increasing) are first generation, it bears paying attention to the academic needs of these students. In my last two posts, I discussed the overarching obstacles that first generation students face and the financial hurdles they may be facing. Now that your first generation students have successfully navigated those financial hurdles, and they are planning to attend your institution, let’s set them up for academic achievement.

The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education created a resource guide called Straight from the Source: What Works for First-Generation College Students. The guide claims that the academic transition is one of the most difficult of the transitions faced by first generation students. This is in part due to lack of challenging coursework, low expectations of teachers, limited resources in schools, and students feeling as if they lack the content knowledge and study skills to be successful in college. In response to these challenges, first generation students vocalized the benefits of pre-college bridge programs. Beneficial elements of these programs include:

  • Tutoring and supplemental academic courses that increased feelings of academic preparedness
  • Helping students gain experience with college-related skills (registering for classes, navigating campus, purchasing books, and practicing study skills and time management)
  • Continuing support through the entirety of the freshman year
  • Connecting with peers of diverse backgrounds yet united as a first generation student community

However, first generation students are less likely to participate in academic experiences that are likely to bring them success. For example, they are less likely to participate in study groups, interact with other faculty and students and utilize support services. This may be due to being unaware of support services, or simply limited in time due to living and/or working off-campus in order to support their families. Institutions can work with these barriers by making an effort to advertise their services through multiple avenues and offer flexible hours that may be more convenient for students who have to work additional jobs.

First generation college students may struggle academically due to a lack of support from family, who may not understand the amount of work necessary in order to be a successful college student. It is helpful to remember that not only are you working with students who are unfamiliar with college, but their families as well. It is important to integrate support and information for families as they navigate college right along with their students.

In addition to summer bridge programs and supporting first generation college student families, Angela Renee Sickles, of Kansas State University, and Cynthia Demetriou, and April Mann, of The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill talk about the importance of a student’s relationship with academic advisors. It is important for advisors to understand the background from which each first generation student is coming.

Taking the time to get to know each first generation student, communicating care for the challenges they may be facing, and helping students not only with academic goals, but personal goals that will help them be successful are great tools to utilize.

Demetriou and Mann identified five specific ways to support first generation students academically:

  • Define: make sure that your campus has a standard definition of what it means to be a first generation student and that it is not open to interpretation.
  • Model: choose students, faculty, and staff who were and are examples of successful first generation students.
  • Connect: link first generation students and families with each other, and link first generation students with the previously mentioned role models.
  • Support: communicate the benefit of utilizing campus resources when students are in need of help.
  • Celebrate: recognize the achievements of first generation students as they achieve steps towards graduation and beyond as alumni.

There are many higher education institutions that dedicate specific programming to first generation students. I’m First also allows students to search by colleges and universities that have specific academic support programs for first generation students.

  • Promising Futures Program at Chapman University features a first generation student “success story” directly on their homepage. The program supports students and their families through the span of their college experience. The website includes tips for success, a list of campus resources and benefits included by utilizing those resources, and resources for faculty and staff. A mentoring program, events, and funding assistance is also available for students.

  • FIRST Program at Clemson University emphasizes having a strong support system. The program offers daily study halls, free tutoring, workshops on college success skills, career exploration opportunities, connections to research assistantships, and dedicated space on campus for first generation students. Students are also offered the chance to form a relationship with a mentor and take a 3-credit academic course in the summer before their freshman year.

  • Brown University is opening up a student center this summer specifically geared towards first generation and low-income students. The student center will reside in one of the campus libraries. It will provide office and meeting space, as well as a lounge and shared classroom/event space. The center will be located near essential academic support centers: The Writing Center, Tutoring Services, the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Language Resource Center, Instructional Technology Group, and the Science Center. The student center will conduct outreach to incoming students, hold weekly student group meetings, develop a peer mentoring program, bring in campus resources to hold events, facilitate networking with alumni, and hold community-building events.

Like any other college student, each first generation student that you encounter will come from a unique background with a unique set of strengths and opportunities for growth. The common thread throughout these programs and words of advice is that just like any other college student, first generation students want to be successful. The best way to make that happen will depend on the community culture of your campus, but helping them feel included and valued is an essential component to any efforts you should make!

About the author: Kaitlin Wolfert is currently an Academic Adviser at Penn State Abington and has seven years of higher education experience. She is pursuing a doctoral degree in Organizational Leadership through Eastern University. Kaitlin loves cooking, working out, traveling, and diving into a good book. Connect with Kaitlin on LinkedIn.

Kaitlin Wolfert

Academic Adviser, Penn State Abington