Cynthia Demetriou and April Mann, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Students whose parents did not attend college are at a disadvantage when it comes to postsecondary access. For those who overcome barriers to access and enroll in postsecondary education, first generation college students (FGCS) remain at a disadvantage with respect to staying enrolled and attaining a degree (Choy, 2001). Furthermore, lower-income FGCS are disadvantaged not only by their parents’ lack of experience with and information about college, but also by other social and economic characteristics that constrain their educational opportunities (Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005).
Collier & Morgan (2008) found that for undergraduates the ability to understand course material is necessary, but, alone, it is not sufficient for success. Students must also master the “college student” role. FGCS have been found to have variations from non-FGCS in understanding the college student role. This can negatively influence their ability to meet expectations and succeed in postsecondary education.
There are many ways in which academic advisors, faculty, and staff can work with FGCS to help them understand the college student role as well as to academically and socially integrate into the campus community.
What can academic advisors do to encourage FGCS success?
- Define. A first generation college student is not the same on every campus. Some institutions define first generation as a student who is first in the family to attend to college. Advisors on campuses that, for example, choose this definition, must carefully consider questions like: What if an older sibling attended college? Is a student FGCS in this case? What if one parent earned an associate’s degree but the other parent never attended college? It is important to be consistent across campus regarding the definition of a first generation student. Because student needs and campus culture differ, the FGCS definition may be different at other schools.FGCS definitions must be shared across a campus. It is also important that terms be consistent. How do campus constituents refer to these students? Are they “F-G-C-S” or “first-gen”? Is there a name that can be used as a point of pride at the institution? For example, at UNC-Chapel Hill, we proudly call our FGCS “Carolina Firsts.”
- Model. Providing role models is imperative for FGCS success. Start by identifying FGCS role models. Role models should include experienced students who have mastered the college student role. These students are academically and socially engaged and frequently utilize campus resources. Academic advisors, faculty, and staff who were FGCS also should be identified. These individuals may serve as mentors to new FGCS. Sharing the stories of these former FGCS can model success. Consider posting such stories on a website, in the school newspaper, as part of orientation programs, or in advising workshops.
- Connect. Connect FGCS to other FGCS as well as to faculty and staff who were FGCS. Introduce new FGCS to experienced, successful FGCS through peer advising and peer mentoring programs. This will help students master the college student role. We also recommend connecting parents and FGCS families to the campus and to each other. The more parents and families know about the expectations and demands of college, the more likely it is that their students will succeed.
- Support. Many FGCS are unaware or reluctant to utilize campus resources. Make sure FGCS are aware of available support services and encourage FGCS to take advantage of these resources. When academic advisors make referrals to campus services, we should communicate to students that taking advantage of such services is normal. Furthermore, students should be commended for seeking help. Asking for help should be viewed as a sign of strength. Through their daily interactions with students, advisors can convey the message that smart students take advantage of institutional resources.
- Celebrate. Celebrate the successes of FGCS on campus. This should be done from admissions recruitment events through to graduation and beyond to FGCS alumni. Make the success of FGCS a point of pride.
How can we accomplish all of this? Start small. Bring together a concerned group of individuals within a department or program to consider working on some of the following initiatives:
- Start an institution-wide committee to work on initiatives for FGCS success.
- Train academic advisors about the needs of FGCS.
- Create an advising workshop for new FGCS.
- Start a FGCS student organization.
- Create campus traditions specifically for FGCS (e.g., homecoming and graduation events).
- Work with campus communications (e.g., newspaper, websites, public relations office, alumni office) to publicize stories about the successes of FGCS.
- Partner with faculty.
- Work closely with the institutional research department. Find out how many FGCS are on campus.
- Determine the retention and graduation rates of FGCS on campus. What are the majors most frequently chosen by FGCS? How many FGCS take advantage of academic advising on a regular basis?
- Identify FGCS, determine what they need, and how they can best be served. Hold a focus group with current FGCS to do this.
- Utilize technology to connect with FGCS (e.g. website, Facebook group).
- Outreach to FGCS alumni.
- Incorporate FGCS families and parents into campus events.
- Provide information on FGCS at Orientation.
- Many FGCS are also students from underrepresented populations and/or students from low-income families. Partner with campus groups including the diversity office and student aid.
- Develop a FGCS mentoring program.
- Stay current on research and best practices for encouraging FGCS success.
When starting any new student success initiative, for FGCS or any other student group, start by identifying FGCS students, telling their stories, and celebrating their strengths. As we understand this remarkable group better, we can develop more specific academic interventions.
Director of Retention
Office of Undergraduate Education
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Director of New Student & Carolina Parent Programs
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Choy, S., (2001). Students whose parents did not go to college: Postsecondary access, persistence, and attainment. In Findings from the Condition of Education 2001: Students Whose Parents Did Not Go to College. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics.
Collier, P. J., & Morgan, D. L. (2008). 'Is that paper really due today?': Differences in first generation and traditional college students' understandings of faculty expectations. Higher Education: The International Journal of Higher Education and Educational Planning, 55(4), 425-446.
Lohfink, M., & Paulsen, M. (2005). Comparing the determinants of persistence for first-generation and continuing-generation students. Journal of College Student Development, 46(4), 409-428.
Cite this article using APA style as: Demetriou, C. & Mann, A. (2011, June). Encouraging first generation college student success. Academic Advising Today, 34
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