Villanova researchers help first-gen students trailblaze into freshman year

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(Rob Dobi for NPR)

(Rob Dobi for NPR)

Transitioning from high school to college can be very exciting, yet daunting, for any student, but data indicate it can be especially challenging for first-generation college students who will lead the way for their families in navigating the world of higher education.

Two researchers at Villanova University have been studying first-generation students in this region. Setting up first-generation students for success begins before they step foot on campus, say researchers Stacey Havlik and Krista Malott.

Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn sat down with them to find out more about what they’ve discovered.

Stacey, I’m going to start with you. In the context of your research, what does first generation mean?

There’s some debate over what first generation means, but in the context of our research we’re using the definition of the U.S. Department of Education, and that is students who are the first in their family to get a bachelor’s degree.

Are you a first-generation student? 

I am. Yes. My mother has an associate’s degree, and my dad went to the military.

Krista, what unique challenges can these students face? 

Often you see that these students have additional challenges compared to their multi-generational attending peers. Some of those challenges are feeling isolated because they may not have the college-going kind of social capital and understanding. First-gen students that we’ve been interviewed on a campus will say things like, “I didn’t even know where the bursar’s office was or what it was for” — as far as figuring out how to pay. “I didn’t know where to go to seek out help if I was struggling in a class.” Or “I didn’t know how to approach my professor in the classroom.” So a lot of not knowing, a lot of unknowns.

In addition, the stats show that first-generation college goers often lack some study skills but also lack some of the social capital about how to find internships, when to look for internships, how to network on campus to promote your future career. We’ve also seen first-generation students really struggling sometimes to leave their community and be the first to go. They sometimes have a sense of guilt — a sense of leaving behind family and friends and needing to go back sometimes and take care of family members and feeling that connectedness more so sometimes than their peers.

You don’t think all students are going through those kind of, “Where’s that office,” and “What’s the name of that? I didn’t know I have to go to the registrar”?

Yeah, that’s a good point. I think that you could also apply much of this to the multi-generational peers, but, in particular, it’s the fact that there are multiple kind of stressors that first-generation students are experiencing. So it’s not just not having the social capital that they didn’t hear at home perhaps as far as being successful in college. They may have attended underfunded high schools often, and so they also may not have the academic skills. And so students that we’ve interviewed have said things like, “I was studying up until 3 in the morning every night because I had to put in that extra time to catch up to my peers especially academically.”

Stacey, I want to talk about these sessions that were part of your research that took place earlier this year. Tell us about those. 

Oftentimes, students at the high school level get college and career preparation. But we wanted to tailor the program. So, as trained school counselors, we decided to facilitate and build a partnership with a local school and run an eight-week small group with the intention of building college self efficacy so that students would feel more confident going to college and build on some of those professional skills and help-seeking skills. One thing that we found was the approach wasn’t necessarily personalized. And so we wanted to make sure that we were able to tailor the group to the needs of our students. Things like how to respond to discrimination that you may face in a school, how to have pride in your identities and strength in being first-generation, and teaching them how to seek different resources when they’re at that university.

How about an example? 

By the end of the group, almost all of our students said that they felt like now they were more prepared. And one thing that they brought up over and over again was we talked about time management. So we brought them a schedule and showed them what that might look like … they were surprised that they would be in class only a few days a week.

Other students said church was really important for them. And so some students fit in a service or joining a student group on campus. Our group is finding programs and finding support systems at the university. For example, our group was predominantly African-American. So we looked for different African-American groups at the schools they were attending. And the students are really excited to find a group to fit.

And Krista? 

Yeah, the connecting piece. We asked students, “What’s keeping you here in college?” And a lot of them said, “I’m connected because I reached out or somebody reached out to me.” And so finding ways to get them connected for those students who feel like they can’t because there was a handful of first-gen students who talked about how lonely they felt and how isolated.  I think sometimes that’s a difference between success and not success at the college level.

Krista, were the exercises done in these sessions really to alleviate anxiety — the fear of what’s ahead? 

Absolutely. There’s some research that shows that if you feel like you’re going to be effective in college, or you’re going to be successful in college, you’re more likely to be successful. So I think anxiety gets in the way of feeling that it’s anxiety based on the unknown. And they talked about that, and so some of the written feedback from the groups was this was just a great space to be able to talk about that anxiety about being worried, to hear about my peers being worried. They hadn’t had a space like that before.

Tips for first-generation students and educators:

  • Get involved in college preparatory programs as early as middle school (for example,  TRIO programs such as Upward Bound).
  • Identify mentors who have attended college — school counselors, teachers, coaches or neighbors — to help with the college selection and application process.
  • Visit a college with a first-generation or underrepresented student support program.
  • Identify the student’s unique identity and talents that will enhance the college success.
  • Identify and lean on multiple college resources: advisers, tutors, faculty members, first-generation programs, and clubs.

Tips for educators:

  • Advocate school counselor-led, multi-level supports tailored for first-generation students, such as individual, small-group, classroom and programmatic levels.
  • Train staff, advisers, and teachers/faculty members to recognize and support first-generation students.
  • Make sure students see themselves and their many identities reflected across a school’s curriculum and environment.
  • Connect first-generation students to academic, career, and social-emotional resources.
  • Reach out to, and mentor, first-generation students individually

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