For IECs, your goal for working with first-generation college students is to not only help them get into a school that fits them well, but also make sure they succeed at that college and graduate on time. At Induck, we have interviewed over 200 first-generation college students and asked them about the academic and social struggles they faced and how they overcame them. Below are some takeaways that we believe will help you guide first-generation college students to success.
One of the most common problems we see with first-generation college students is they discuss having a problem, how it affected them, and then discovered there was a solution much later than they needed it or after the problem was over. This is either because they don’t want to ask for help, they try one solution and it doesn’t work so they try to tough it out, or they just don’t know where to look. For example, when first-generation college students are deciding on a major, they often don’t realize that they have many other resources for making this decision other than their assigned freshman advisor. They don’t realize they can go speak with career services, academic department heads, the academic resource center, and other resources the school provides.
It’s important to show your first-generation clients what offices they can get academic help from so they can avoid falling into academic pitfalls early in their career like this student at the University of Pennsylvania did.
"There are many resources like the Weingarten [Learning Resources Center]. It’s also easy to contact T.A.’s and they are oftentimes willing to go out of their way to help you understand the material and take some of their personal time to help you. Even though there are a lot of resources, I wouldn’t say that I capitalized on them. My freshman year was mostly trial and error and I made some academic mistakes, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot from it. It’s worth asking for help because it’s everywhere. I wasn’t quite prepared for the constant stream of large tests and I think that’s what you have to prepare yourself for."
The problem of not knowing where to look for resources also comes from students not understanding what networking is – whether they do it naturally or not – and how to use it to their advantage. This can be very important with looking for research positions, internships, or other opportunities on campus, as well as just having connections they can reach out to on campus.
A senior at Wesleyan touches on how knowing this could have helped her early on, saying, “I also wish I knew more about networking and going for internships because that isn’t a normal thing to do where I am from. My first two years I wasn’t really aware of certain opportunities and going for certain internships and how to get them.” Make sure your students know how building relationships on campus can help them discover opportunities and find resources.
Colleges have tried to help their incoming first-generation students adapt by creating orientation and student support programs, offering clubs, and developing communities through themed living arrangements and other groups. While all of these systems are beneficial, the students we have seen have the fewest bumps in the road early in their college careers come from systems where there are mentor-mentee relationships. Some school-sponsored programs assign mentors, some first-generation student clubs and other clubs assign them, and other clubs, including first-generation student-oriented clubs, cultural clubs, and professional clubs, have them occur naturally. We’ve seen that if a student is not assigned a mentor, they can find them naturally by asking questions to people in groups they are a part of. Help your students by encouraging them to join groups where they can find older students who can act as mentors. A student at Emory touched on how much his mentor influenced his college experience in his interview.
"'How did you meet your closet friends?'
'One of my closest friends was actually my mentor. At the beginning of freshman year, we got matched up with students with similar backgrounds as us in a program [called MORE]. I got really close to him. Another friend I met through the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership and we started having a lot of classes together. In the business school, the classes are pretty small so if you’re in a certain concentration, like accounting, you tend to have the same classes with the same people and you start to get close to them, especially when you get matched up in a group.'
'How was transitioning academically as a first-generation student? Were there any systems in place that helped you adapt?'
'It was a little difficult, especially coming from out of state and having no idea about college. I had to figure out what to do myself. There were the general programs in place for the entire student body, but I felt like I had to search for peers and friends that were in similar situations and find older students who could help guide me through the process my first year. Through that, I found the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership and became involved with that.' [See Emory Student Success Programs and Services here.]"
If your students don’t feel comfortable putting themselves out there to find a mentor or network with students or professors, social media is a good tool for helping with questions or problems they may have. We’ve interviewed students who have used text message group chats and Facebook and Instagram groups associated with the student’s class at the school or specific clubs on the campus to ask questions. Reddit is also a good resource for students to ask questions anonymously on the school’s subreddit page. Depending on the school, there may also be subreddits for specific programs or schools within the school. An example of this comes from a Neuroscience major at Yale who used Facebook groups and text message group chats to help her transition to college.
"In college itself, I found a really good group of people that are first-gen and low-income through the STARS research program I talked about earlier. They provide a lot of helpful resources through a group chat and a Facebook group. I’ve talked to first-gen students, and what has helped their transition a lot is having a group of people who share the same experiences as them, and are willing to share all the resources they have to make sure they succeed."
We’ve found that many of the problems that first-generation students encounter come from the change in the academic environment from high school to college. This happens most at large universities where students not only have to adjust to the rigor of college academics, but also have to adjust to entry-level courses with large lecture halls, discussion sessions, teaching assistants, remote clicker questions, and curved grading scales. A student in the undergraduate business school at Michigan discussed adjusting the large lecture halls and curved grading system in her interview.
"'What is something you wish you knew about Michigan before entering as a freshman?'
'I wish I knew how competitive the academic environment was and I wish I knew about the different student organizations that I would have joined during my freshman year.'
'What is something a prospective first-generation student should know that we haven’t touched on?'
'The classroom environment and how the bigger classrooms feel.'"
From what we have seen, navigating the change in academic rigor and academic environment is often what makes first-generation college students encounter problems where they need help and could use the solutions mentioned above. As an IEC, every client is different and there is no way for you to truly prepare your student for those academic changes, but we think that introducing tools to find help will best prepare them to take the next step.
About Induck College Impressions
Induck College Impressions (www.induck.co) is an online college guide that gathers information through in-depth interviews with current college students. This gives subscribers various perspectives on the experience at a certain school. The service currently features 900+ interviews covering 140+ schools and new information is added daily.