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Tadé Ayeni, Eastern Washington University

Tade Ayeni.jpgApproximately 50 percent of undergraduates are first generation college students (FGCS). Alarmingly, only 11 percent of low-income FGCS graduate from a university within a 6-year period (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).  Quantitative research has been extremely helpful in illustrating areas in which FGCS have consistently struggled.  However, for these students, the problem is not solely academic in nature.  They face a variety of social and conceptual barriers.  Falcon (2015) explains the inconspicuous social issues that belie their observable academic struggles:

First-generation students often require developmental coursework and tend to have lower grade point averages than their peers with college-educated parents (Huerta, Watt, & Reyes 2012).  This results in lack of confidence in their own ability to be academically competitive and successful.  In many interviews with minority FGCS, they discuss feeling that their non-minority peers question whether they have the grades to have earned admission into college (Wilkins, 2014).  An African American student interviewed by Wilkins (2014) stated, "Non-Black students assumed that all Black students benefitted from non-merit based admissions programs, even though most did not" (p. 184).  Minority students may face the stigma that their college admittance is based solely on affirmative action, rather than their academic abilities (ASHE, 2013).  This factor also contributes to low academic self-esteem and feeling of alienation from peers. . . ."  Perceptions of a hostile climate, negative student-faculty interactions, and limited cross-racial communications can have counteractive effects to a FGCS's academic self-concept and sense of belonging, which may lead to dropping out" (ASHE, 2013 p. 51). (Falcon, 2015, para. 11)

In attempting to gain a greater profundity of understanding regarding the experiences of FGCS, it may be helpful to examine the experiences of other student groups who may, to an extent, have overlapping or similar experiences.  The reason for this is that human beings do not experience events in neat categories.  Rather, it is possible for a person to have various aspects of experiences simultaneously as well as several types of narratives to interpret those experiences (Conroy, 2003).  For instance, an African American student at a predominantly white campus will have the experience of being part of a minority group.  However, if that same African American student is a male majoring in one of the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields (a field in which women have traditionally been underrepresented), then, in the aspect of gender, he may also have experiences as part of a majority group.

Based on this, studying the experiences of underrepresented student groups may provide some greater insight into the complex experiences of FGCS.  In 2014, I conducted a phenomenological study of the experience of Black students (the term “Black” here is used as a broader term encompassing both African and African-American students) who had managed to successfully matriculate through the higher education system and gain acceptance to United States medical schools.  In these interviews, all participants spoke of being raised in societal contexts in which aspirations of becoming medical physicians were not associated with Black people.  In this regard, they share a commonality with FGCS in that they both come from backgrounds in which there was little to no prior practical and conceptual pipeline toward post-secondary academic achievement.

Although the participants in the study came from different cultural, economic, and geographical backgrounds, there was one commonality in their responses: the impact of expectation.  They all acknowledged the general societal expectation was that they would not pursue higher education.  For example, Kayodé, an African male participant, explained,

I guess I came from a pretty; it was a “quote unquote” like bad neighborhood.  We grew up in the [North East United States], you know, most people are not interested in going that route.  I’m definitely a big believer that you tend to emulate whatever you see, and I didn’t see much of that, you know, my friends classmates, neighbors, you know I’ve never heard of anyone who was from my neighborhood trying to even like . . . go to medical school or be a doctor. (Ayeni, 2014, p. 50)

He was also asked how he gained the aspiration to become a physician in a general environment that he openly admitted contained no expectation or encouragement for him to pursue academic goals in the medical field.  He responded by identifying his parents and his ethnic culture:

My parents, they’re Nigerian, they came from this country, they came from Nigeria to this country for opportunity. . . . A lot of people say the American dream is dead and [there is] some truth to it, it kind of is, but the Nigerian culture, our parents said work hard and you can get whatever you want in a country where anyone can work and make it out to be an outstanding individual. (Ayeni, 2014, p. 51)

In addition to the negative societal expectation that they felt, participants identified a network of people that surrounded them who consistently held positive academic expectations for these students and persistently verbalized them.  After detecting this as a major emergent theme that appeared in all participants’ responses, this phenomenon was termed “a culture of Positive expectation” and defined as “a sub-culture in which their aspirations were fostered, encouraged, defended, and bolstered through the positive expectation of those around them” (Ayeni, 2014, p. 48).

Additionally, each participant delineated a unique blend of components that comprised their particular culture of positive expectation.  When Yemi, an African female who participated in the study, was asked how she first decided she wanted to become a physician, she responded by identifying her family’s expectation while also discounting the role that her ethnic identity played in that decision:

I don’t think it [ethnic culture] played any role at all.  I think it was just family, basic family structure and what people say to you that kind of shape how you think of yourself and how far you can go in life. (Ayeni, 2014, p. 52)

After identifying her family as a contributor, Yemi went on to tell a poignant story that provides an illustration of how educators can play a crucial role in the formation of a student’s culture of positive expectation.  She explained,

I was in advanced placement classes.  There was one time I felt I could not carry the load with like, maybe like 4 advanced placement classes, and I decided to leave my advanced placement class and go to a more regular math class.  And I had this teacher call the other class and say “Where is she?  She belongs in this class” and I’m just like “Ugh” and I had to explain to my teacher why I felt I could not handle the workload.  So it was like, it wasn’t, I never had the experience where someone was telling me I wasn’t smart enough, “You’re not bright enough."  It was more like “This is where you belong, so come back to this class” . . . so I never felt like the color of my skin hindered how far I was going to go, I had to work to get that out of my head. (Ayeni, 2014, p. 52)

Yemi’s story illustrates a possible conceptual link between student self-expectation and overcoming educational barriers.  Years later, as I repeatedly sat across the desk from students who had come to see me due to poor academic performance, I noticed a trend.  After these students selected classes they planned to take in the upcoming academic quarter, I asked them what grade they thought they could realistically earn in those classes.  Students generally responded with a 3.0 (B) or lower.  I then posed this question to them: “If I told you that you would get a large sum of money at the end of the quarter if you got a 4.0 (A) in those classes, what grade would you get?” They then answered that they would get a 4.0.  I pointed out that although nothing had changed about the classes or the students themselves, they identified very different grade expectations.

My main point to them was that, with diligence and proper motivation, they could realistically achieve a 4.0 grade.  I then highlighted the fact that they themselves had just unwittingly admitted this as well.  One of the main things that I affirmed to them was that when they got the 4.0 in that course, I would be happy for them but not surprised.  At the beginning of these conversations, students were generally withdrawn, quiet, and, in some cases, embarrassed.  At the end of these conversations, they were animated, engaged, and, in some cases, even smiling.  They may have been entering the nascent stage of a conceptual shift from merely hoping for good grades to actively intending and practically planning to achieve them.

In conclusion, the lesson here is not that simply by verbalizing positive expectations, educators can drastically improve academic performance. Such an affirmation would be an over-exaggeration at best.  Rather, the item of importance is the potential of using the formation of a culture of positive expectation as a complementary tool paired with existing best practices to address conceptual and experiential obstacles that students of various pioneering groups face.

Tadé Ayeni
Academic Advisor – College of Business & Health Sciences
Quarterly Faculty - Africana Studies Program
Eastern Washington University


Ayeni, T. (2014). A phenomenological study of the experiences of Black minority medical students through the frameworks of Critical Race Theory and gender as a social structure (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (AAT 10062475)

Conroy, S. A. (2003). A pathway for interpretive phenomenology. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 2(3), 1-43.

Falcon, L. (2015). Breaking down barriers: First-generation college students and college success. League for Innovation in the Community College, 10(6). Retrieved from https://www.league.org/innovation-showcase/breaking-down-barriers-first-generation-college-students-and-college-success

U.S. Department of Education. (2010, September). Web tables: Profile of undergraduate Students 2007-2008. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2010/2010205.pdf

Cite this article using APA style as: Ayeni, T. (2018, March). Exploring the relationship between experience, expectation, and academic performance. Academic Advising Today, 41(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2018 March 41:1


# Kechi
Thursday, March 08, 2018 10:32 AM
Thank you Tade for this article. It clearly expressed what I have always felt and told faculty about setting high standards for students and believing in them so that they too can believe in themselves.

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