Lorneth Peters, Austin Peay State University
Students who enroll in college will be faced with many challenges, but for some, being a first-generation student will be a challenge within itself. Billson and Terry (1982) define first generation students as students whose parents have had no college or university experience. Most of these students enter college without as much preparation as their counterparts. Chen (2005), in a study done for the National Center for Education Statistics, confirms that first generation students receive lower grades and have a higher drop out rate. Advising first generation students leads me to suggest six practical things we, as academic advisors, can say and do to increase the success rate of our first generation advisees.
Develop positive friendships. Academic advisors should encourage students to seek out others who are passionate about completing college. First generation students are already at a disadvantage, so positive friendships are a must to survive college. As an Academic Counselor for TRIO Student Support Services, I encourage students to complete a simple exercise. They are encouraged to make a list of “so-called friends,” each friendship’s length of time, and how it contributes to their college success. After completing the exercise, most of the students realize that the company they keep is more of a hindrance than help to their college success. The students are advised to nurture positive friendships by joining professional groups within their particular major and seek out faculty within their field of interest as possible mentors.
List important dates. Students who forget important dates can be in trouble before they even begin classes. Missing admissions, financial aid, and registration deadlines can get students off to a bad start. To lessen the frustration advisors may experience when students repeatedly ask the same deadline questions, advisors should develop an important deadline list and hand it to every student. In my experience, first generation students function better on a one-on-one basis. Even though our program hands out the important deadline list to a number of students, we take the time to explain the importance of deadlines and highlight the dates most applicable to each student’s situation. We feel that this helps increase our retention of first generation students.
Develop a contact list. Sometimes students feel like they do not receive the right information from departments. After going from person to person and hearing different answers to the same question, students, and specifically first generation students, can become discouraged. Discouragement fosters the blame game: “this person did not provide me with the right information.” Advisors can help prevent this discouragement when we know at least one person in each department and refer students with questions to that individual. Advisors should tell students to keep a list of individuals with whom they spoke.
Use technology to help students. The increase of on-line education has drastically changed traditional advising. Today advisors are not always able to sit across from students and read their expressions. Still, advisors can use the Internet to our advantage. Ask on-line advisees to set up an uninterrupted time to e-mail or phone questions to advisors. Additionally, provide distance students with a list of important deadlines and contact information for each department.
Our experience has been that many first generation students are not computer literate. Academic counselors within our TRIO program strongly encourage first generation students to take on-campus courses for a year before signing up for on-line courses. We strongly believe that on-campus courses help students connect with the institution. Still, single parents and students who work numerous jobs may opt for on-line classes. Using technology to contact these students is vital.
Technology can also be used to contact all students throughout the semester. Counselors within our department contact each student via email every month. This helps us develop a more personal approach to our advisees. We ask students about their classes and if they have questions or concerns. Even when no questions exist, students indicate that they are happy that someone took the time to check on their academic and personal progress.
Utilize the Assistance of Federally Funded Programs. Several federally funded programs are dedicated to the success of first generation students. While each institution may have different programs, those such as TRIO Student Support Services and the McNair program can help students. Advisors should encourage qualifying students to join these programs and take advantage of each program’s services, e.g., free tutoring.
Help Students Persist. Students who are not prepared for college can feel overwhelmed and quit school. Advisors who share their personal struggles as college students can help motivate stressed students. When students realize that even advisors face late nights and shed tears, they can feel encouraged not to quit. We give each student a copy of “Don’t Quit,” a poem by an anonymous author. The last part of the poem is especially helpful for our students:
Success is a failure turned inside out,
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt.
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems afar.
So, stick to the fight when you're hardest hit.......
It's when things go wrong that
You mustn't quit.
First generation students often require more attention than other students. Academic advisors can help ensure the success of these students when they are prepared. Advisors who apply the six practical suggestions listed in this article can guide first generation students through their toughest and most rewarding years and in turn help them graduate.
The NACADA First Generation College Student Advising Interest Group is a good resource for advisors who work with first generation students. To find out more information about the group visit: http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/InterestGroups/C31/index.htm .
TRIO Student Support Services
Austin Peay State University
Don’t Quit. Retrieved May 30, 2007 fromhttp://www.allinspiration.com/Life/Poems/dont_quit_poem.html
Billson, J.M., & Terry, M.B. (1982). In search of the silken purse: Factors in attrition among first-generation students.College and University, 58 , 57–75.
Chen, Xianglei (2005, August 9). First Generation Students in Postsecondary Education: A Look at their College Transcripts. Retrieved March 30, 2007 from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2005171
Cite this article using APA style as: Peters, L. (2007, September). Practical ways we can assist first generation students. Academic Advising Today, 30(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]