As a very privileged continuing-generation student, I did occasionally notice how it helped when, during my studies, people in key positions at the university recognized my last name, or when I got very detailed instruction and support in writing letters to committes (actually, maybe I did not even write those letters myself, now that I am thinking about it…) that bent the rules for me, for example got me special permissions to take a minor subject at a different university where they had to set up a study plan just for me (which they did).
But what it actually means to not get support, in the same way that I did or at all, has sadly only recently really come on my radar, as one aspect of student diversity that we should embrace and support. For example, in data from Norway we saw last year that first-generation students have much higher levels of test anxiety than continuing generation students, and one idea for why that might be the case is that they just don’t know what to expect, and and hence how to prepare, because they had nobody who could tell them. Also I recently noticed how much more “phew, it’s more like guidlines anyway” I am towards academic rules than my first-generation colleague. Now I read the Peña et al. (2022) article on “Ten simple rules for successfully supporting first-generation/low-income (FLI) students in STEM”, and I am sharing my take-aways below.
One thing to keep in mind, though: These tips come from a US context. As I learned from a presentation I attended on Wednesday, in Sweden the laws around inclusion developed a lot more recently and top-down (and then, when reporting this to colleagues today, I got a lot of push-back on that; she says that the laws came very much bottom up, people just don’t like being told what to do, hence the resistance. Ok?). So anyway, some of those tips might sound a bit unusual in our context here. But I think they are nevertheless very much worth considering, so check them out in full!
But to my summary: The tips center around becoming aware that FLI students, and possibly organized communities, exist, and finding out more about them. Does the campus have resources or organizes events? And are there support systems in place, like food banks etc? If basic needs like food and shelter are insecure, how can we expect students to be able to focus on learning? This is not something that we are used to thinking about in our context here. Neither parents’ education levels nor someone’s socioeconomic status are something that you can easily see in someone, especially since in order to belong to the majority in academia, FLI students likely have developed strategies to “fit in” and hide those aspects of their identity. Which is probably a useful strategy on individual level, but it also means that there is little awareness of this aspect of diversity, too many assumptions being made, and too little support being offered.
That said, in interactions with FLI students, don’t assume to know what they need; ask them what kind of support they actually want. But do offer networking and mentoring opportunities, and professional development opportunities, since that is probably something that they have less access to than continuing generation students. And with missing networks might come higher levels of test anxiety, a lower sense of belonging, or feeling like an impostor, waiting to be found out. This is something we can explicitly address in class, by making an effort to foster a sense of belonging, and by explicitly addressing things in class, like the impostor syndrome (read a very relevant criticism of the concept here, because it blames individuals rather than systemic biases: “The answer to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to fix individuals but to create an environment that fosters a variety of […] styles and in which diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities are seen as just as professional as the current model”).
Also be aware that FLI students might not have been socialized the way that traditional, high-income, continuing-generation students have been, and that they might have different value systems. In the article, they mention that FLI students might approach things more collaboratively. Somewhere else, I read the opposite: that for first generation students, who always had to fight on their own to learn and get through the system without role models, collaboration might feel like cheating rather than something that is wanted and sometimes required in academia. In any case, whichever it is — being aware that cultural norms are not universal, and sensitive to differentces without judging them, is probably a good approach anyway.
And lastly, now that we are reading this article and thinking more deeply about those topics, their 10th rule is to not end at interpersonal support but to use our position of privilege to advocate for institutional support, for example making sure that the academic system is possible to navigate without support from parents who have gone through the system, but just by reading transparent and clear guidelines and explicit rules. And by making sure that we don’t expect students to put a lot of additional money towards their education for things like books or lab coats or tickets to events or whatever it might be, but that we provide access.
I really appreciate this perspective and the “rules”, and will keep them in mind going forward!
Peña, C., Ruedas-Gracia, N., Cohen, J. R., Tran, N., & Stratton, M. B. (2022). Ten simple rules for successfully supporting first-generation/low-income (FLI) students in STEM. PLoS computational biology, 18(10), e1010499.