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If you’ve read essentially anything I’ve written for The Lawrentian in the past year or so, you probably know that I’m a proud first-generation college student. You might even be sick of hearing about it— if so, good. We don’t talk about the experiences of first-generation college students enough; pretending we don’t exist does not minimize the experiences we have. Unsurprisingly, I decided to focus my psychology capstone on how universities can better support first-generation students.
Unfortunately, though, this is a decision that has caused me quite a few tears in my beloved Mudd library. Diving into the research surrounding first-generation college students, I was startled by what I found in terms of statistics and language.
One of the first frustrating things I discovered was that people seem to really struggle with defining what it means to be “first-generation.” Some sources only consider a student to be first-generation if neither of their parents have obtained any post-secondary education, including certificate programs and associate degrees; others limit the definition to students who are the first to attend college out of their immediate family, including siblings. According to the Center for First-Generation Students Success and the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, a first-generation college student is an undergraduate whose parents did not obtain a bachelor’s degree. This is the most common definition, and it’s the one I use whenever I write about being a first-generation student.
Further contributing to my angst is the seemingly non-existent data. Considering people — even those with more letters behind their name than I will ever have — can’t decide what actually constitutes being first-generation, they surely aren’t able to effectively collect data about these students. University surveys rarely ask the generational status of students— how can we learn more about these students if we aren’t identifying who they are?
Most of the information that is out there about first-generation students is about retention rates, and the statistics are admittedly startling. According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success (2019), only 20 percent of first-generation college students successfully attain a bachelor’s degree within six years of entering their postsecondary education. On the other hand, 49 percent of their non-first-generation counterparts attained a bachelor’s degree in that time.
Minimal research has been conducted about the social-emotional well-being or overall life satisfaction for this demographic. Thankfully for my psychology-major self, there is some research about the prevalence of psychopathological symptoms and life satisfaction. But unfortunately for my first-generation self, what I found was not particularly uplifting.
According to Noel and colleagues (2020), first-generation college students reported significantly more anxiety symptoms than their non-first-generation peers and also significantly lower overall life satisfaction. Surprisingly to me, there was not a significant difference between groups for depressive symptoms. A joke I’ve told too often to my capstone class: we’re sad, just not clinically.
There are a multitude of potential rationales for the anxiety and life satisfaction findings: imposter syndrome, decreased sense of support, acculturation, absent sense of belonging, etc.
Diving into the research has not caused any sort of decrease in these feelings for me; rather, I am simply reminded again and again how unlikely it is for me to succeed, how unprepared I was for the path I chose, how miserable I must be, how low the expectations are for students like me. This information can cut deep, especially if you already feel like you’re drowning and you’re working in the library later than you’d ever like to admit.
Some information admittedly cuts deeper than others. Articles like “Why do first-generation students fail?” (Mehta et al., 2011) manage to gut me simply with their title. No sentence is needed beyond the one in bold at the top of the page.
While crying in the library, though, I am reminded why it’s important for me to keep digging and keep reading. Resources and support are vital contributors to life satisfaction, so universities need to reinforce our resources and our supports — and that means supporting first-generation faculty and staff as well. After all, imposter syndrome is not cured at graduation.
To my fellow first-generation students: statistics can be cruel, but they can also instill action. These numbers are not meant for us to identify with, for we will always be so much more than a statistic. We are whole human beings with unique sets of skills and challenges. I’ll continue reading (and probably crying), and I’ll keep you posted.
Mehta, S. S., Newbold, J. J., & O’Rourke, M. A. (2011). Why do first-generation students fail? College Student Journal, 45(1), 20–35.
Noel, J. K., Lakhan, H. A., Sammartino, C. J., & Rosenthal, S. R. (2021). Depressive and anxiety symptoms in first generation college students. Journal of American College Health, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2021.1950727