The Experiences of First Generation, Working Class Graduate Students
Front Range Community College
The literature abounds with statistics and stories about the challenges college students face when they are the first person in their family to access higher education. Researchers have called attention to the multiple identities inherent in first generation status and to the significant cultural transitions and resulting marginality that first generation undergraduate students often experience (London, 1992; Orbe, 2004; Terenzini et al., 1994). Student affairs professionals have responded by creating high school-to-college bridge programs, academic interventions, and mentoring projects designed to support first generation undergraduate students and to ameliorate their disadvantages. In spite of these efforts, and even when controlling for other persistence and attainment factors, first generation undergraduate students are more likely than legacy students, those whose parents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, to leave college without a degree; 45 percent of first generation undergraduate students drop out compared to 29 percent of legacy students (U. S. Department of Education, 2001). Even though a significant number of first generation undergraduate students do persevere and obtain postsecondary degrees, they are again underrepresented at the graduate level (only 25% of first generation students will begin a graduate program) where fewer resources exist to help them with the continuing challenge of navigating cultural transitions and addressing issues of marginalization based on socioeconomic class.
In spite of the abundance of information on the experiences of first generation college students during their undergraduate years, very little research has been done on the experiences of these students when they enroll in graduate programs. However, a wealth of first-person narratives provides a look into the personal and professional lives of academics, both graduate students and professors, who are first generation college students. Much of this work focuses on issues of socioeconomic status, particularly working class status, (Dews & Law, 1995; Linkon, 1999; Rose, 1989; Ryan & Sackrey, 1984) and incorporates the voices of people of a wide variety of races, ethnicities, genders, abilities, sexual orientations, political beliefs, and religious practices. Present in many of these narratives are stories of cultural transitions and marginality that increase in complexity as the student’s level of academic study becomes further removed from his or her family’s educational experiences. By supplementing the research about first generation undergraduates with these poignant narratives of working class, first generation graduate students and academics, the importance of providing ongoing student affairs support for these students becomes clear.
In 2005, I conducted an applied research project as a requirement for my graduate program in Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education at Western Washington University (WWU). My qualitative study examined the experiences of nine students in Master’s programs at WWU who were the first person in their families to go to college. (The student narrators were between the ages of 24 and 42; five were men, four were women; seven identified as White or Caucasian, one as American Indian, and one as biracial.) My interest in this topic was grounded in my own experience as a first generation college students and my first graduate school experience in the mid-1990s when I was completing a Masters degree in English Studies. At the time, I had no name for the phenomenon, but I was consciously struggling to cross an ever-increasing cultural chasm between myself and my family and friends, and I sometimes felt out-of-place in the rarified academic environment where my fellow students seemed so comfortable. I found many of my personal experiences validated and reflected in the research and first-person narratives about first generation college students.
After reviewing the literature and conducting one-on-one, in depth interviews with my student narrators, I came to believe that the issues of cultural transitions and marginality do not disappear when students finish their undergraduate programs. It seemed logical to me that the dissonance and challenge may, in fact, increase with each progressive foray into higher education. I do, however, agree with Orbe (2004) that some first generation students have enough familial “cultural capital” (Bourdieu, 1977) to lessen the impact of transitions and marginalization. For example, first generation students who have the cultural capital of being white, male, traditionally aged, and/or middle- and upper-class may have more advantages than other first generation students.
As student affairs professionals, we know that first generation college students are underrepresented in graduate programs. We also know from our experiences with first generation undergraduates that college requires students to navigate cultural transitions and address marginalization. If student affairs professionals want to encourage the persistence and nurture the resilience of first generation graduate students, particularly first generation, working class graduate students, we will need to listen and respond effectively to their stories. Borrego (2003) reminds student affairs professionals that we have the ability and responsibility to “help students tap their unique class position as a source of power” (p. 7). This power is not only a source of strength for students in their individual educational pursuits, but it is also an important contribution to the academic learning community.
Student affairs professionals who are interested in supporting the success of first generation undergraduate students can learn a great deal from students in Masters degree programs who are the first person in their family to graduate from college. These students are higher education success stories in many ways. They have defied the statistical odds not only to persevere to earn a bachelor’s degree, but also to join the ranks of the academic elite: scholars in pursuit of graduate degrees. The students I spoke with shared several factors that contributed to their educational resiliency: attending schools that offered Advanced Placement (AP) classes, challenging curriculums, an affluent parent population, and teachers who expected all students to go to college. One narrator in my study attributed his decision to go to college to a family relocation. He said,
“We moved into a rich area… we were a lower, maybe lower middle-class, blue collar family, and we’re surrounded by white collar upper-class people, and I think I really was influenced, maybe not right away, but by junior high definitely I would have said college was in the picture and then in high school it is was sort of assumed. You have to go. If you want to make something of your life, you have to go to college.”
In addition to the resiliency factors that came from quality K-12 education, the majority of the first generation graduate students I interviewed benefitted from a tremendous amount of emotional support from at least one parent. However, this support is general, not specific. These are not the highly pressured offspring of the middle- and upper-middle class. For the most part, parents of these students are proud of their accomplishments and pleased with their abilities, but they do not push their children to succeed academically. The support these students described is more akin to encouragement than coaching. Parents of first generation students who successfully navigate the narrowing pathway to the highest levels of higher education are fans in the bleachers rather than coaches signaling from third base. While the narrators often desired what parent-coaches have to offer, they were grateful for the encouragement and emotional support their parents provided. As one student said,
“They left it all on me. Everything was on me. I was in charge of my own destiny, and they pretty much said, ‘Do what you can do…and we’ll support you as we can’.” Another narrator put it this way: “I didn’t know how to play the game. My parents didn’t know how to play the game. So it wasn’t that they weren’t supportive, but they just had no real practical support to offer.”
Having a strong work ethic was a third resiliency factor that my research participants shared. One student said,
“I don’t know if that has to do with class… but I think it’s just a result of your upbringing. That’s kind of how I was trained. I transferred how my father works into how I work in class…”
Other resiliency factors included: aptitude for academic work/love of learning, desire to serve others, ability to balance passion and practicality (over and over, I heard, “You have to have a plan!”), interest in upward mobility, and financial resources above and beyond their family’s regular income. Additionally, many students started at community colleges, and one was able to participate in the federal McNair Scholars program as an undergraduate.
What I find noteworthy about these first generation, working class graduate students is their willingness to “go it alone.” Strong familial support and academic preparedness is central to many of their stories, but what their narratives ultimately reveal is an intense desire to persevere in their studies in spite of a lack of understanding from their loved ones and the potential loneliness that can come from being the “first in line.” Being the first person to do something implies privilege and opportunity. Being first often is related to being exceptional. Standing at the front of the line involves the responsibility of being an example and role model. It also evokes the excitement—and anxiety—of being first.
As I have shared this research with others, I hear a constant refrain of “This is my story!” accompanied by gratitude, hugs, tears, or a plea to share our story with others. When I asked my narrators what they would take away from our conversation, many of them indicated that this was the first time they had ever consciously examined the issues of first generation status and social class. One narrator said,
“I think just talking about it makes me realize just how much this has influenced my life. Whereas before, it was just sort of ‘this is who I am.’ I didn’t think that there was anything special about it. …And to think that there are other people out there like me, going through what I’m going through, is a whole new perspective.”
A future counselor compared it to presenting a client with a diagnosis. She said,
“I think you just making the comment that there are people out that have shared this experience is really different. And, I mean, working in mental health, it’s incredible when you give… when you present a diagnosis to somebody and they go, ‘Oh, my gosh. That’s why I’ve been this way? My life makes so much more sense now.’ That’s kind of how it feels. This really has had an influence on my life.” In the course of an hour and a half conversation, these students came away saying “…it’s not just me.”
One student said,
“Wow. It is surprising. I guess I’ve always felt like that was just my life. That’s just how it is. I never really thought that there were other people that were going through that ever. That’s really interesting.”
Like most graduate students, the narrators for my study shared a passion for learning and a great enthusiasm for their subjects. They enjoyed discussing big ideas and theoretical concepts. Ironically, what they loved resulted in an often unwanted distance from the family members who have encouraged them to attend college. The biggest cultural transition facing many of the narrators in this study was bringing their graduate student identity home. For some, bringing their graduate student identity home simply didn’t happen. However, several of the narrators—who made it clear that they valued the support and respected the intelligence of their family members—expressed disappointment about no longer being able to talk with their parents or other family members about issues or ideas that are important to them.
Not being able to talk with family members about their academic studies or intellectual ideas was both a disappointment and a relief for students. Some viewed being with family members as a “vacation” from academia; others experienced it as a loss to, as one student described, “eclipse” their family members. Another narrator explained it this way:
“…you go to school, you love learning, you go home, and there’s only…certain people that you can talk to about your learning… My mom would listen and she would be like, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ but she wouldn’t really care to the same degree that you [interviewer] care. …Yeah. We [narrator & a hypothetical classmate] both care so much about teaching or your content area that you’re going to talk about WWII and you’re both excited about it. And you can talk about all the different concepts… You wouldn’t even think to mention that to certain people in your family.”
It is probably safe to say that graduate students, in general, are fairly comfortable with their academic abilities after having highly successful academic experiences as undergraduates. The narrators in this study did not express anxiety about competency or competitiveness; they seemed secure in their academic performance. Yet several narrators described a discomfort with academic discourse and the culture of academia that they struggled to overcome, and other narrators shared stories of marginalization based on socioeconomic class. One future teacher said,
“For me to be articulate, and for me to sound like I know what I’m talking about, I have to think about things a lot. Get in that mind set.” Later, he went on to say, “Sometimes I think I am quiet because, maybe especially during some conversations, I feel like kind of an alien in academia.”
This sense that academia is an “alien” culture is not unique to this student. Chaffee (1992), Rendón (1992), and Rose (1989) have also used this same descriptor to explain what higher education feels like to students from lower socioeconomic classes. Some students, while keenly aware of these differences, enjoy their marginal status and choose to keep academia at arms length. For example, a student studying history said,
“A part of me doesn’t want to become like one of those intellectuals that sits around in a black shirt and condescends to everybody and sees negativity in everything because it’s all worthless, be pervaded by cynicism because you know so much…I’d like to be able to learn about it and be in control rather than becoming part of the intellectual system, I suppose. Does that make any sense?... I want to get inside, but I don’t want to be consumed by them.”
Still, in spite of the occasional rebellious attitude, most students still experienced the marginalization that results from the invisibility of class on college campuses. A male student described a classroom interaction with a professor by saying,
“This little voice in the back of my head said, ‘You just described the vast majority of my entire family, and you just described them as beer-swilling, Republican-voting hicks.’ I didn’t say anything. I just kind of sat there. I mean, what was I going to say to that? And… that, I mean, that bothered me. I mean, it still does.”
It is because of incidents like this that some students may feel uncomfortable continuing on to the doctoral programs that lead to work inside academia. (This was not as true for the students who were pursuing professional, terminal degrees in teaching or counseling.) The student who described the classroom experience above went on to pose this question:
“It’s like, is this [Masters program] the final weed out? Obviously on some levels it is, but why… it just struck me, why don’t a number of us go the extra step? … It’s not that we aren’t capable. It’s just there’s something there that we don’t want to go farther…. It’s something that I’m starting to wrestle with, too. ‘Why don’t you want to do this? Are you afraid of doing this? Or you just don’t want to be like those people’?”
It is interesting to note that this marginalization was, according to the narrators, unique to their graduate school experience. Graduate school is designed to provide students with a taste of scholarly life and an introduction to the academic community. Faculty who see clear distinctions between themselves and undergraduates may have less rigid boundaries with graduate students. Indeed, they may perceive graduate students, even those in Masters programs, as future colleagues. Some may expect that all graduate students are—or should be—comfortable with academic discourse, academic culture, and the habits of a particular socioeconomic class. Often, however, these expectations do not match the experiences of first generation students. This clearly has implications for diversifying our faculty ranks and the academy as a whole.
Since this was a pilot study conducted by a graduate student, serious limitations exist that influence the impact of my findings. Chief among them are the small sample size, the geographic and institutional specificity, and the relative lack of diversity (particularly students in different degree programs and students with multiple racial, cultural, and socioeconomic identities).
While the student affairs profession ostensibly focuses on the growth and development of all students, it is often the undergraduate experience that garners most of its attention. Colleges and universities that want to encourage the persistence of first generation, working class students in graduate programs will need to do more than usher undergraduates in the front door. Student affairs professionals will need to understand the experiences of these students, provide appropriate and effective services, and work with faculty to help them provide support at the departmental and graduate school levels. These interventions need to focus on enhancing the strengths of first generation, working class graduate students and acknowledging and celebrating the cultural and socioeconomic class richness that they bring to the university.
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