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Welcoming

Change
Understanding and
Supporting First-
Generation
Students’ Transition
to College

Nadir Sharif
TABLE OF CONTENTS

Abstract ................................................................................................................................................................................... 3
Introduction ........................................................................................................................................................................... 4
Challenges in Transitioning to College ..................................................................................................................... 5
Social Integration ........................................................................................................................................................... 5
Academic Integration ................................................................................................................................................... 6
Solutions to these Challenges ........................................................................................................................................ 7
Limitations ............................................................................................................................................................................. 8
Bibliography ......................................................................................................................................................................... 9

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ABSTRACT

In a 2007 report by Jobs for the Future, it was concluded that the United States has a very
long way to go to eliminate social disparities in degree production to meet the demand for
higher skills and knowledge and remain competitive internationally. Closing the gaps
between various historically disadvantaged groups would require that the bachelor‟s and
associate‟s degree production be increased by nearly 37 percent. The achievement of this
goal is not possible without catering for the special needs of first-generation students.
These students represent the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups that are currently
disadvantaged. The goals for the higher education system have been set, now it is time
for significant efforts to be made in understanding and solving the problems that are
faced by first-generation students. (Handel & Montoya)

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INTRODUCTION

“First-generation entry is contested, paradoxical, and ambivalent. In
Foucauldian terms, it involves students working on themselves and
becoming „disciplined bodies‟ who will do what is expected of them and
want to do it, but will also evoke counter-memories and counter-narratives
which make this process far from straightforward.”

(Thomas & Quinn, 2007)

Students with parents who do not have any higher education background spend less time
socializing with other students. They are also less likely to transfer to other institutions,
which is an important part of the pathway to a Bachelor‟s Degree for many of them.
Their expectations from college are significantly different from those of their peers.
(Murphy & Hicks, 2006)

First-generation students, like other non-traditional students, often belong to low-income
families. Consequently, many first-generation students will begin their education at an
institution which they do not intend to be the last or final institution that will award them
a bachelor‟s degree. Since the number of students who are first-generation and follow this
pathway to a degree is very large.

This paper will also make an attempt to identify and address issues related to students
who transfer from two-year institutions to four-year institutions to continue their
education. These discussions are important for the full appreciation of the challenges
faced by first-generation students, and are also relevant when discussing ways to
overcome these challenges. (Townsend & Wilson, 2008-2009)

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CHALLENGES IN T RANSITIONING TO COLLEGE

First-generation students face many challenges in their transition to college. Many of
these challenges are complex and multi-faceted. To better understand these challenges,
they have been broken down into two main categories: social and academic.

The scope of these challenges is large and requires state-wide or even national policies to
mitigate the effect that they have on first-generation students‟ ability to succeed
academically in their lives. However, since this paper deals with the students who have
already made it to college, it will focus on the social and academic challenges that
students face once they have entered college. However, discussion of these challenges
beyond the boundaries of colleges and universities will be included where necessary.

It may also be noted that the complex nature of many of the challenges that students face
makes it difficult to always divide them within rigid categories. As a result, some of the
categorization in this paper may seem inappropriate.

SOCIAL INTEGRATION

Coming to college is a big decision for many first-generation students because of the
implications that it has for their social life. Students not only leave family and friends
from their high schools or two-year colleges behind, they also enter a realm where there
are few others like themselves.

The problem is further exacerbated by the need of many of these students to work for
long periods of time to support their education. Many live off-campus, especially if they
are attending a community college or are transferring to a four-year college from one.
These two factors put together deprive many students of the ability to engage in social
activities with other students. It is not uncommon to find first-generation students‟ social
lives restricted to small cliques. (Townsend & Wilson, 2008-2009)

First-generation students, typically from working class backgrounds, are faced with
another dilemma. Their social integration is complicated by the challenges they face in
articulating their individual identities whilst being measured against peer norms that are
representative of what first-generation students view as the elite and the privileged
student population.

Peer group cultures and relations have become crucial to young peoples‟ sense of
identity, self-esteem, and security in a world where inherited social differences have been
„erased‟. As a result, the relations between first-generation students and non-first-
generation students are typically connected to feelings of guilt, shame and resentment, as
well as envy, deference and pride. Such feelings only work to strengthen the fences
within which first-generation students find themselves confined. (Christie, 2009)

This is not the only manifestation of inter-class differences in the social lives of first-
generation students. Even before they come to college, students live in the fear of having

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to ever consider going back to where they came from. To them the decision to attend
college is a step toward something higher, something better. At the same time, however,
it is a step away from that which they see as their „own‟. This fear creates a pressure on
students to succeed, a pressure that may in some cases result in students deciding not to
attend college, but one that is also a factor while these students are enrolled in college.
(Reay, David, & Ball, 2005)

ACADEMIC INTEGRATION

Prior to the discussion of academic integration, it is important that we establish what it
means to have achieved the same. According to Murphy and Hicks, academic integration
is the formal and informal interaction with the academic systems of the university,
including activities centered on classrooms and other learning spaces involving various
educators. (Murphy & Hicks, 2006)

It has been found that first-generation students are less prepared academically and are not
able to perform at the level that is expected of students in college and university. They
are less likely to have taken college preparation exams, or courses that would have eased
their transition to college, like the Advanced Placement tests. The non-engagement of
first-generation, at-risk students in higher level courses, particularly in mathematics,
reduces students‟ ability to cope with the academic requirements of college. (Choy, 2002)

Academic integration is also complicated by the differences in teaching and learning
styles that are promoted by colleges, which many first-generation students find it difficult
to adapt to. While this is also true for first-semester college students in general, the
problems are bigger for first-generation students for two reasons. The first is that the high
schools that they usually come from mostly cater to low-income students and this is
reflected in the quality of education that is provided by them. The second factor is that
many first-generation students use two-year community colleges as a low-cost entry point
to higher education. The academic integration in four-year colleges after the completion
of their two-year diplomas is even harder. (Townsend & Wilson, 2008-2009)

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SOLUTIONS TO THESE CHALLENGES

The satisfaction of students with their relationships with faculty is dependent on them
having a feeling that the faculty of the university are sensitive to their needs, interests,
and aspirations. The ease with which students can develop personal relationships with
faculty members on campus and the perception that these faculty members are good
instructors help strengthen students‟ resolve to persist and to succeed. The influence of
the level of satisfaction on the students‟ achievement of academic integration, and the
influence of academic integration the students‟ chances of success is very significant.
(Murphy & Hicks, 2006)

Student affairs professionals should use the findings summarize here, and the findings of
the research work and literature on which this paper is based, to help demystify the
college experience and dispel some of the misconceptions about college, and to assist
first-generation students in their integration into the college community. The first step
toward the achievement of this goal is the identification, and targeting, of first-generation
students as soon after matriculation as possible. Students in the target population should
also be encouraged to participate in intervention programs that promote social and
academic integration into the college community.

Recruitment officials should play their part by conducting programming that educates
first-generation students as well as their parents about the expectations that colleges have
about students‟ academic characteristics. Such sessions, with the participation of faculty,
administrators, and peers, help validate the students and provide them with the push that
is needed for them to strive to realize their own intellectual potential. An effort should be
made through these sessions to match students with the colleges and universities that will
serve them best. It has been noted that first-generation students, just to prove that they are
capable, are likely to attempt to attend institutions for which they are not academically
prepared. (Reay, David, & Ball, 2005)

Interest groups for first-generation students or non-traditional students in general can be
introduced to college campuses to help alleviate some of the social integration
challenges. These groups can play a social as well as academic role by developing a set
of knowledge and skills that are informed by other students‟ experiences.

Orientation programs should include particular events and sessions that address the needs
of first-generation students in particular and non-traditional students in general. In order
to focus on the issues that are pertinent to the transition to college for these students,
these orientation sessions can be combines with the transfer students‟ orientation
program, allowing colleges to reduce their operational costs and enabling more efficient
use of college personnel‟s‟ time. (Townsend & Wilson, 2008-2009)

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LIMIT ATIONS

The body of literature that addresses first-generation students in particular and compares
them with other groups of non-traditional students is limited. While the discussion of
first-generation students‟ special needs in literature studying non-traditional students is
abundant, this does present some challenges in identifying needs that are particular to
first-generation students. While this is an area that should be considered as a candidate
for further research, this need should not imply the lack of relevance of existing literature.

Throughout this paper, several international studies and reports have been cited. While
this may limit our ability to compare „like with like‟, it does provide unique perspective
into the issues that are faced by first-generation student in the United States.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Assistance, T. A. (2008). Transition Matters: Community College to Bachelor's Degree.
Washington, DC: Department of Education.

Choy, S. (2002). Access and Persistence: Findings from 10 years of longitudinal
research on students. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Christie, H. (2009). Emotional Journeys: Young People ans Journey to University. British
Journal of Sociology of Education , 123-136.

Eimers, M. T., & Pike, G. R. (1997). Minority and Nonminority Adjustment to College:
Differences or Similarities. Research in Higher Education , 77-97.

Handel, S., & Montoya, J. (December 2008 - January 2009). Strengthening the Nation by
Narrowing the Gap. Community College Journal , 24-26.

Murphy, C. G., & Hicks, T. (2006). Academic Characteristics among First-Generation
and Non-First-Generation College Students. College Quarterly .

Reay, D., David, M. E., & Ball, S. (2005). Degrees of Choice. Sterling, VA: Trentham
Books.

Thomas, L., & Quinn, J. (2007). First Generation Entry Into Higher Education: An
International Study. New York, NY: Open University Press.

Townsend, B. K., & Wilson, K. B. (2008-2009). The Academic and Social Integration of
Persisting Community College Transfer Students. College Student Retention , 405-423.

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