CTL: Best Practices for Supporting the Academic Success of First Generation College Students

CTL: Best Practices for Supporting the Academic Success of First Generation College Students

August 21, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


My name is Vivianna Alvarez. I’m a third year student here at Hampshire College, studying education and psychology. I’m also a signer for the first generation college student group which is called First Scholars. And I’m here
and I thought that this was an important topic, because it feels to me that there is – first
generation college students have been…they’re not a necessarily noticeable group. They’re
not an identified group. But yet, in our meetings, in our conversations, we hear about the different
things that students are interested in that are connected to being first gen students
or the struggles that they are having as students that are new to college without the resources
that many of our other students have. This is also something that’s for me, very personal,
I’m a first generation college student. Neither of my parents went beyond high school and
I’m the only one in my immediate family to have a bachelor’s. Actually, my nieces and
my nephews are all getting to college, so that’s good. But yet, there’s a lot of privileges
that allowed me to be that person in my family to do that, so, I have some pieces that I
can very much relate to. A lot of the current research and thinking about this and some
of my own struggles with confidence in different areas that I think come from long, long ago
and continue that are related to being a person without a real clear understanding of how
to navigate college systems. This is also something for me that is very important to
help my colleagues think through how to better support students to get through, successfully,
and in a really empowered way. I’m sorry, I was a little nervous at the beginning
and I forgot to tell my part. Both of my parents weren’t born here. My dad is from Mexico and
my mom is from Hong Kong, before it became a part of China. Neither one of them had gone
to college. I am the oldest of two and my sister is currently going through the college
process so I feel like I’m reliving it myself. Trying to help her navigate that. I guess
I first decided to really go to college because it was never..I never had a college-going
identify until I had decided myself in the eleventh grade. Which is when I found Hampshire and I decided that this is the only school for me. And if I didn’t
get in, I don’t know if I would survive state school I have this vision of,
I was going to make it because my leadership in high school was very strong and I was a
really strong member of my community. We were all first generation Americans. It was really
great to have this sense of, we’re all going through this together. We found strength in
ourself that our parents couldn’t offer us and we also went to a college prep school
where we only had one guidance counselor for about sixty-seven of us, helping us through the
college process, but we never had a counselor to talk about, you know, the emotional state
of tying what was going on at home to how that was affecting us in the classroom. So,
I got to Hampshire, and I went through my first year not identifying as a first generation
college student, not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t know that that was
a thing. And it wasn’t until my second year when I took a course with Kristen and Corina
Fernandez about college access and college awareness that I had decided that I had brought
myself to where I am now and endured a lot of challenges and got through a lot of obstacles
to get myself to where I am now. But wouldn’t it be so great if first gen students could
spend the time on trying to get to the pace where everyone else is that they just kind
of came to college, to Hampshire with. If we had spent that time finding more interests
or diving deeper into our interests, because its not just about navigating the academics
of it, but its also navigating Hampshire as an institution on its own, which is really
different from other schools. So, even though we may be talking to other first gen students at other schools, the experiences are very different. I talked to Kristen and we found
out that this is a common subject area that we wanted to really dive into and created
the student group with two other first gen students which is going really great and we’re
now working on this. Viviana is the driver of this whole thing,
I have to say. And the whole thing is – we’ll talk a little bit about – but it is a first
generation initiative, where Viviana got the student group up and going with signers and
is doing work with that. She and I have been able to pull together folks in different offices
to figure out how when Viviana’s not here anymore, there’s actually a structure that
supports first generation initiative. We’re thinking as a college about how do we
prepare the conditions for first generation students who will be coming more and more
to campus. How do we make sure its a place where they thrive? Because there’s only like
six of us, I’ll kind of go through here, but we’ll certainly deviate and hit
more in discussion. By the way, this is utterly exciting to me, it is kind of a hidden, quiet, for whatever
reason students may not be talking about it. It is also very hidden and quiet among faculty.
I’ve been working with most of them for what, ten years? Like on committees, everything,
I never knew that about you. Right? So, you know, how do we identify ourselves and share
experiences and think through and bring in allies like Sue to say, “Help us when we need it,”
right? We just want to talk a little about bit about
how first gen is defined which is kind of more policy piece, but also then identity
as first gen. Talk a little bit about First Scholars at Hampshire and is happening
at Hampshire. Spend a little bit of time because first gen students are often perceived
as needing support. And indeed, we/they do. But, what is often left out of
the discussion is what is it that first gen students add to Hampshire? What do they contribute
to their own educations? Why is making sure that we’re bringing in more first generation
students a really valuable and important goal? Common areas are challenge where support is
needed. We’ve made a bunch of scenarios that we thought – I think we’ll talk through them
together. And then we identified some best practices but I think we can come out from
this discussion generating best practices. My hope is to take the ideas that come from
our discussion, add them to what Vivianna and I named and make sure that both the video
and this listing is available on the Center for Teaching and Learning website.
We’re going to go over first gen as an identity. Some definitions that we have found that are
commonly associated with being first gen is parents had at most a high school degree,
but no college. Parents had some college, but no degree. Parents had at most a two year,
but not a four year degree. With this we were also talking about how the first scholars
student group here identify as first gen. We notice when trying to reach out to students,
asking people if they identify as first gen, was sometimes misinterpreted. Well, I don’t
know if I’m first gen was usually the response that we got. So we made it open ended. What
does it mean to be first gen to you? And what we had came up with together was that first
gen as the identity itself was being defined as the obstacles that we go through and rather,
and not, like the parent, parental situation that was going on, because situations really
do vary from case to case. So for example, a parent who does have a degree, may not be
the parent that has influence within the student’s life. Or another example would be an older
sibling having gone to college, but the student may not talk to the sibling anymore. We really
define it by mentorship and association to people who can provide a college going identity
before or during the process of being in college. It’s very confusing.
For me its confusing and complicated because the statistics we are getting about who our
first gen students following the bottom discussion. But yet, I would hazard to guess the students
who would fit into the definition that Vivianna is suggesting, is a much broader
group of students who need some net in some way. I always like to say, “Why are we talking about this?” One clear way for me
to think about it is, so the percent of kindergarten students in 2010. This is the educational
background of their parents. So, you’ll see that a great great many. So, if you go by
the definition of one or more parents having a baccalaureate degree, you have what, 30,
32, 21, that’s what? 53 and 10.. 63? Sixty-three percent of students coming down the pike who
had the potential to go to college, are first generation students by that definition. So
it’s a good number of students that will be coming to us. Hopefully coming to us, right?
I was trying to think, get some information on who is coming
to college. Who is a first generation student, does that make sense? And one of the studies
that I looked at seemed pretty consistent or at least it is cited an awful lot, is from
2011 and it is about one in every five students entering college is a first generation student.
First generation college student. Some general, wide characteristics that Viviana
said, who first generation students are, they’re their circumstances are very diverse. And so, but generally some things we can say is that those who tend to enroll in
college and graduate do so at a much lower rate than students whose families, who come
from a family where parents have some kind of bachelor’s degree. First generation college
students are more likely to be low income, to be students from a racial ethnic minority,
to not have English as their dominant language, speak English as a second language, live at
home or off campus. This is a little; one thing you should also be clear about is the
majority of first gen students tend to be more in state universities, community college
settings. So, even thinking about how does this imply to a liberal arts setting is interesting.
And more likely to work full time. I think Neil Stillings’ comment at the faculty meeting
about he is seeing more and more students coming to him who are doing their Div three
and also working full time. I’ve noticed this for a few years. I’m sure its going to continue
for us. That this is first gen students coming to us and they’re working. They’re trying
to support themselves, their families, be here. So, working full time is a piece of
that. Take fewer courses or credits per semester. At Hampshire..some kind of..do you want to
take this? Sure, last year was the first year
that Admissions had recorded in record the number, or the percentage of students that
were coming in who were first generation college students and that is determined by the FAFSA
when they ask what the background, what the education of your parents are. So, the options
are some college, no college, high school. And we recorded that thirteen percent of the
2014 fall first year class are first generation college students and we also have the James
Baldwin Scholars program which is led by Corinna Fernandez and that really brings in students
who all identify as first generation college students and there is a lot of support that goes into making sure that those students no only get through
the college experience here at Hampshire but also provide resources to continue their
success beyond Hampshire. There’s a couple… I think they meet weekly. It’s a really tight
knit community that really allows you to find people who can connect and relate to you and
that build really strong sense, not only are you going to get through this
but we’re all going to get through this together. That’s really great stuff. The next piece
to it is the First Generation College Student group which our group is titled First Scholars and what we do in that group is primarily to support each
other through the obstacles that we’re going. We’ve had two meetings so far. It’s been really
great, because I wrote up a lot of topics that we could potentially discuss in the student
group and it was just. In both meetings, it was really great for students to just be like,
Oh my gosh, like, you go through that too, and to have that sense of y’know like connection
to people that we’ve only seen around campus but we’ve never interacted with. Some of the
topics we discuss are things lost in translation when we’re talking to people. I mean whether
it be family and we’re trying to talk what’s going on here at Hampshire or talking to friends
about; or friends talking to us about, certain things that we haven’t really gotten
a grasp of, or vice versa. Familiar obligations acknowledging intersectionality. I wrote societal
pressures. Expectations not only that we have for ourselves, but what is expected of us
from our professors, our family, our peers. How to find resources and mentorship, and
microaggression. Those are some of the topics. We also like to do outings into the community
into Amherst, outside of Hampshire to get out of this little bubble that we have going
on. Not only finding a way to support each other through talking about our challenges
but also building community with doing really great fun stuff together. Then we’ve got the
First Generation Initiative which is a board of people. I don’t know if I can
do all of the names, but I know we have someone from Admissions, from the Culture Center,
the director of the James Baldwin Scholars. I’m sure I’m missing.. Career options.. a
number of people, yeah. And we come together and we talk about where it is that we want
this initiative to go and what’s going to be a part of it. How can Hampshire as an institution
support first gen students and the retention of first gen students.
It’s in its infancy, so a part of it is thinking about… One of Viviana’s ideas is how do
we do a campaign where faculty may choose to identify themselves so students also may
choose to identify themselves. So there’s a media campaign, not a media campaign, like,
um, you know what I’m saying.. Awareness campaign, thank you. (Laughter)
And also just kind of harnessing a lot of the program that is already happening. And
bringing it together so that it’s… that first gen students are more aware as a body,
as a group, as a community, of the kinds of resources and programming that currently exists
but then also develop for the program. This was the idea to go beyond the deficit
model, go beyond a model where we’re just thinking about what are the.. what’s the remediation,
what’s the support that people need as they enter into college, but rather thinking about
what kinds of capital, what kinds of resources, knowledge, and skills do folks have when they’re
coming to college. This model is pulled from a piece by Tarioso who talks about community,
cultural wealth. And one of the things that she talks about is aspirational capital. She’s
talking primarily here about communities of color, particularly, I think … You might
know this piece better.. Is she talking about Latino family communities? Okay, so kind of
the notion of aspirational capital that while families may not be able to support, or communities
may not be able to support students with financial resources necessarily, or help fill out a
FAFSA, or help “can you edit my paper and see if I’m making a good argument” type of
resource. They do and are very supportive and provide resources and skills and ways
of thinking about what is possible. And instilling in students a sense of this
is possible for you. You can do what.. you can do this, right? Navigational capital.
So, generally, having a variety of experiences, navigating and maneuvering through a number
of institutions. For some students its that they are the key person navigating through
their high school process, their college process. It might be through social services process,
health care, right? Some students may be translators for their family, primarily, or the primary
translators for their family. Whether its by language or by cultural capital. So they’re…
students are coming to us often with experiences, having navigated a number of institutions.
Pay the bills,.. yeah.. yeah, paying the bills, yep, absolutely. So, and I put down, just
as a, I put down that these are important for making, acknowledge as faculty, as advisers,
and to try and understand what are the skills and knowledge that students are bringing to
us and to help make them visible, because I think that often when students enter
into this setting, this Hampshire setting, and are feeling kind of without, like they
don’t have a compass, that they tend to forget that they’re bringing all of these types of
skills and knowledges to college with them. Linguistic resources, so several students
are very skilled in already kind of; you had talked about translation, both in terms
of speaking a particular language and being bilingual or trilingual, but also in terms
of coat switching. Going from different kind of communities and speaking across communities.
Family and community resources. What
are ways, the stories, the testimonies that families talk about and pass down to their
children that kind of bring them forward, give them hope, provide them resources? Resisting
capital. So, I mean, one of the ways I think about this, that when I’m reading about first
generation college students, one of the things I’m reading about and you may all have felt, is that when something; when there’s a challenge to
your work. It’s all of sudden like, oh my god, I’m not good enough, I shouldn’t
be here. And so, kind of, having, remembering that there’s been many times when there’s
been messages or efforts to kind of stop students. Or tell them they shouldn’t be where
they are and I think, I’m bringing this specifically to students. and then resisting and going
through and pushing through. This is a list that the First Scholars, we came
up with together at our last weekly meeting, and we sat down and I asked the question,
“As first gen, we need a lot of support in certain places, but what do we have to offer?”
What makes being a first generation college student a positive thing? At first, we sat
there and just looked at each other and had to give each other a couple of examples to
get this thing going, but once we started, they were speaking faster than my pencil was
writing. Just a couple of things to highlight. I’ll go through the list. We are experienced
problem solvers. We know how to get ourselves out of difficult situations. If some of these
aren’t clear, please feel free to ask a little more about them. We have self motivation.
We persevere. We don’t procrastinate because we know it is going to take us twice as long
to get through something so we work our schedules out to fit our academic needs. What I mean
by that is, a lot of us had expressed that sometimes readings can take a lot longer for
us compared to our peers because there is a lot of vocabulary that we may not be familiar
with, but we’ll take the time to pull up a Webster dictionary or whatever it is that
we need in order to better understand that word so that we can understand the context
in which it is being used. We do well at finding different methods of learning. We’ve got strong
work ethics. We work hard and diligently. We are observant. We examine and pick up subtle
cues in various situations. We know how to develop critical questions. We know how to
dissect complex ideas and get roots. We know how to ask for help when we need it. We are
open minded and curious. We bring cultural wealth back to our families. Going a little
more into being open minded and curious: a lot of us were talking about how sometimes
we question things so much because we don’t understand it. That it almost seems, not that
we’re trying to get every single piece of it, but that’s what we need in order to understand
something. We want to view it at every angle and really dissect it as much as possible.
Sometimes it can come off as we’re asking too many questions, but its just so that we
can really get to its roots and consider all the ways to interact; to take what it is that
we’re trying get out of this piece that we’re reading. We bring cultural wealth back to
our families. We bring cultural capital to Hampshire. We build strong communities. We
plant seeds of knowledge in our communities. We are resilient. Just a little more on that:
we’re not only in college to benefit us, to get ourselves an education so that we can
live a better life. I think personally, having my mom, having come to the US so that I could
go to college is a really big motivator for me. I’m not only striving for a better future
for myself, but so that my mom can see that everything; all the sacrifices that she made
were for a reason. And I think it ties back into that familial piece. We bring positive
change to our lives and the lives of people around us. A lot of the students in the group
were talking about how their parents; One student was talking about how her parents
had decided to go back to community college to take a course and they had that moment
of “I see what you’re doing; you’re trying to talk to me about what you’re doing and
I want to do that too. I want to get an education for myself.” Our experiences help other see
different points of view and understand issues of access with more empathy. We value education.
We know that the reality is it is more a privilege than a right. What I mean by this is, our
parents didn’t have that privilege of going, of pursuing higher education, and for them
it was a lot about getting into that work field and really supporting your families
so that they could; that we could go to college. A lot of it is access to and its a question
of, I guess not so much which.. It’s more so of a question of which college are you
going to go to because, I guess for me it was like my parents just wanted to leave that
up to me. But there was also the undertone of I really want you to go so that you can
have a better future. It is access in regards to going out there and getting the best for
us, but not necessarily know what it is that may be the best for us at that time. We don’t
assume higher education is a rite of passage and I was going to say, last, but not least,
this is definitely not the last, but last on this list, is our experiences and contributions
provide discussions with a fresh perspective. It was a lot of fun writing this; putting
this together. The little notes you all got in your boxes
were also a product of this meeting and the scenarios were also a product of this meeting.
This group really helped inform this session. Common areas of challenge. What are the things
from the literature, from experience that we know are trouble spots? The idea of thinking
about what’s education for? Having an understanding that when students come to us, they might
be thinking, “What am I going to do with this?” “What’s the career?” “Where is this taking
me?” And we all have people trying to think of what is a concentration? But if there’s
a piece of it, that is about “What do I do with this?” it might end up pushing out some
options. An example is “Why would I take a philosophy course? I have no understanding
of what that would do for me. How is that going to help me get to where I want to be?”
Being prepared to talk with students about both where they are going, but also the life
of the mind. Why is that also very significant. Explicit and implicit rules or expectations
for assignments. I think this is particularly a difficult issue at Hampshire. Across the
faculty, we all have very different ways of doing things. That alone is really difficult.
That a lot of our processes are not necessarily written down in clear ways. I was in a meeting
today and someone was saying, “Okay, we’ve submitted the Div two faculty request form.
Now are we supposed to contact faculty? Or are they going to contact us? I’m not sure
what to do. Am I going to get a chair if I don’t contact them?” There was a sense of
‘Am I doing the right thing?’ And I think that happens at the level of getting through
the college process here at Hampshire, but it is also the idea of when you are talking
in your classroom about “What’s a good paper? What does it look like? What do you expect in it? Is it listed in your syllabus?” Real important things that you must have in your paper in order for you to be saying, “Wow, Viviana, that’s amazing!” Are you talking about what your feedback means? In the sense that, I’ll tell my students, no matter what you hand me, I’m going to tell you it is great here and here and here, but also, no matter where you are, my job is always to provide you feedback and your paper is going to be marked, all over the place. No matter what. Because I learned that I never used to say that, and students would freak out when they’d get a paper back and some would not want to continue. Because it is critical feedback. It is not “Woo hoo, Viviana, great job.” Talking through the hidden curriculum of the college; the hidden culture of the college around assignments. I also think that some of the difficulty is engaging in discussion, engaging in classroom discussion particularly. How do you enter into that? What is a thoughtful kind of question? Can students even ask questions? One of the things that came out of one of the studies is that the idea of questioning the author, the researcher. How would I know this? Who am I as a first year student going to be able to take up and take apart and think through and critique this person who published a paper? The sense of how do I ask of how do I ask good questions, both in a classroom and what right do I have to ask questions? How do we use office hours? How do we engage students and tell them and teach them about what could happen in office hours and why they should go? Boundaries. Professor, student. Forms of address is one thing. Should I be called Professor Luschen? Should I be called Kristen? When you write me an email, I’d appreciate if you said, “Hello Kristen,” or sign your name, things like that. Professional etiquette. Or student etiquette, I should say. But also then what are the boundaries? When do you get to see me outside of the classroom? When don’t you? When do I get to contact you outside of the classroom and when don’t I? Being really clear with our expectations and what we expect. Family / school commitments. You brought that up before but often being really alert and aware. I’ve been thinking through with students about the pulls that they have between there for their families and being present for their academics. Persistence in the face of academic challenge. I’ve already mentioned that there is some evidence that early feedback that is not necessarily like “Here are the great things that you did and also.” That can really jar students. Especially for students that are coming from places that they are really quite the stars in their schools and then they are coming to Hampshire and it is like “Am I behind?” “I thought I knew what I was doing.” Does that sound familiar?
Very. Encountering / combatting micro-aggression. For first year students, around class, around race, around language. I’m hearing messages everyday that are suggesting that you are not enough. That you are not right. That you don’t belong here. Being the object vs the subject of study. A student that I worked with over time here. The first year, I didn’t think that she was ever going to come back and see me. She took a class with me, “The American School” and I had students do a digital story about coming to college. We were reading all of this material about schools and inequality. She said, “I never realized I was working class until I came here. I didn’t know what that meant.” And she suddenly saw herself in this discussion, as now it was her that we were discussing. And she was removed from the discussion, having to talk about her community. So, being an object of the classroom discussion, versus the subject of the classroom discussion. Or being a subject who could enter in, but at that point she didn’t even feel comfortable to even enter in. Role of experience and purpose. What are we learning? Why are we learning this? What’s the point? Family identity shifts. You had talked about straddling your home culture and your school culture and how do you do that? For many of us, that is always very interesting, complex piece for different reasons. (music playing)