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Viewpoint: Support first-gen students


Published May 9, 2010

The University of Michigan is a middle-class university; most of the students and faculty hail from the middle class or higher. Students who are the first generation in their families to go to college and come from working-class backgrounds are a minority at this institution. As a result of my research for my senior honors thesis, “First-Generation Working Class Undergraduates at the University of Michigan,” I found that these students face financial, academic and cultural disadvantages here at the University.

Not only are first-gens more likely to struggle to get by financially once they arrive, they are also more likely to have attended high schools that did not adequately prepare them for the University’s academic rigor. This sets up a social situation that is made even worse by the clash between students’ working-class culture and the middle-class culture of the majority of their peers, making it difficult to fit in and transition to college life. In addition, first-gens often lack certain traits — called cultural capital — of middle- and upper-middle-class students that help foster academic success, including study skills and information about the higher education system. One participant of my study recalled that, as a freshman, “I didn’t know the difference between a Ph.D. and a bachelor’s. I used to think, ‘What’s the difference between a graduate student and an undergraduate student?’”

To combat these glaring issues, the University should take several steps to better serve its first-generation, working-class students. First, it should offer them more financial aid in the form of scholarships and grants. Several of the participants in the study I conducted felt that the University should put aside scholarships just for these first-generation college students. This measure would help the first-gens focus on academics and allow them to participate in more extracurricular activities that help them make the cultural transition and narrow the study skills and information edge more affluent students enjoy.

It would also be helpful to identify all students who lack adequate academic preparation during the admissions process and offer them some form of assistance. The University does have such academic programs for at-risk students, but most of the participants in this study were not invited to join them, even if it is clear that they would have benefited from them. One first-gen in my study explained that there is not enough awareness at the University about the experiences of similar students, saying, “I think that we’re such an underrepresented population that they almost ignore us. They try to help students who fall more into a racial minority category, and maybe they hit some first-gen students or low-income students, but some students fall through the cracks.”

First-generation applicants could also be matched with experienced first-gen mentors. Or they could be invited to participate in seminars designed just for them. Such seminars could be used to help give students that cultural capital, and also make them aware of the cultural transitions ahead and how they might affect their family relationships. In addition, first-gen students should be encouraged to consider extracurricular activities in which they are underrepresented, such as study abroad, in order to help them integrate into the higher social classes. These targeted initiatives will help foster a smoother integration for first-gens into the larger student community.

Faculty, staff and students should also be made aware of first-gen experiences to better prepare them for the issues these students may raise. A few academic advisers could be trained to deal with first-gen issues in order to provide better services to this demographic. Professors would be more accommodating to such students if they did not assume, as some do, that all of their students have middle-class academic and cultural backgrounds.

The University should stay true to its commitment to diversity, but it should also remember that diversity encompasses more than race or ethnicity. By giving first-gen students more opportunities and aid, the transitions and challenges they face can be mitigated, and they can focus on what they came here for: academics.

Serena Hinz is an LSA alum.