Amy King was the first in her family to go to college, and she experienced firsthand the challenges of being a first-generation undergraduate. But when she got to graduate school, she found the adjustment even more difficult.
King is now a licensed psychologist, but she still remembers how hard it was to explain to her family things that everyone else around her seemed to take for granted. “For instance, they didn’t understand the internship process or why I wasn’t getting paid yet,” she says. “That causes some psychological distress. When you think, ‘Gosh, the important people in my life don’t really get it, and they aren’t able to appreciate it in the same way.’”
Meanwhile, she felt that professors and others around her assumed that because she made it through an undergraduate degree, she must have it all figured out. But there are “subtle barriers” that first-generation grad students face, she adds, because they don’t have role models and people to go to for advice and answers about the process.
“It leaves a lot of students doing a trial-and-error approach, and sometimes these errors are really expensive,” she says.
King ended up writing her doctoral paper on the challenges faced by first-generation graduate students in professional psychology, which argues that universities should do more to recognize and support these students. It cites research that shows that while first-generation college students are just as likely as other students to aspire to grad school, they are less likely to earn graduate degrees.
“Graduate programs committed to investing in first-generation students can implement changes to the existing, normative culture to be more responsive and inclusive of first-generation students’ needs,” she writes. “While these students have significant strengths, resilience, and academic ability, they have little guidance from external sources to support or understand their graduate endeavors, which requires more specialized knowledge.”
“If you’re the first in your family to go to college, you’re typically the first in a lot of things. If your family may be skeptical or a little nervous or anxious about you going to college, then think of what they say when you tell them, ‘I’m going to stay longer and acquire more debt.’”
—La’Tonya Rease Miles, director of First Year Experience at UCLA
Among the specific changes that King recommends are:
- Identify first-generation students at admission so that interventions can be targeted early.
- Help students build professional networks and provide mentorship and advising.
- Offer additional financial aid to first-generation students to help encourage more students from different social and ethnic backgrounds to attend.
- Provide multicultural training to faculty “which includes current literature and research related to first-generation students as an underrepresented group.
La’Tonya Rease Miles, director of First Year Experience at the University of California at Los Angeles, says that while there is a growing awareness at colleges and universities about the need to support first-generation undergrads, administrators have been slower to see the challenges faced by first-generation students at the graduate level.
“That identity continues, and in some ways can be compounded when you’re a graduate or professional student,” she says. “If you’re the first in your family to go to college, you’re typically the first in a lot of things. If your family may be skeptical or a little nervous or anxious about you going to college, then think of what they say when you tell them, ‘I’m going to stay longer and acquire more debt.’”
Miles is herself a first-generation student, but she says that she wasn’t even aware of the label while she was an undergraduate. It was not until she was in a PhD program that she felt the difference between herself and those whose parents had graduate or professional degrees.
“I’m reading books all day—that’s not really considered work in the family I come from,” she says. “The kind of work in graduate and professional school can feel really, really different than the work your family is doing. And you can feel like such an imposter.”
About four years ago she started a Facebook group called Empowering First-Generation College Students for those advocating for first-generation students, which now has more than 2,500 members.
At UCLA, she says that student groups have emerged to support first-generation graduate students. One of them is the First-Gen Grad Student Council, which holds community events for students across campus who are the first in their family to attend graduate school.
“We try to build a sense of community—a sense of belonging,” says Julio Fregoso, an incoming third-year PhD student in the Higher Education & Organizational Change program at UCLA, who is active in the group. “A lot of social events are really catered to undergraduates,” he says, which makes the group even more crucial in the graduate setting. And, he says, many graduate student events are geared only for students in that specific program, where his group works to bring together students across different departments to share advice and support.
King, the psychologist, argues that if universities and professions are serious about diversifying their ranks, they need to do a better job of supporting students who are new to the culture of higher education. As she puts it, “You’ve got to make sure that you’re supporting them in the right way.”