Last week, I attended (virtually) a web-based seminar hosted by the University of North Carolina on first generation students.
Those are students who are the first in their family to attend college or university. The seminar looked at how being the first poses a number of challenges.
The part of the seminar which resonated most with me was a video with one of their first generation students. This young man talked about his experience which included being provided with little if no support in his decision to attend a post-secondary institution by his parents.
His parents immigrated to the United States from Chile when he was a child. Neither of them had attended college or university in Chile. You can guess that coping with the challenges of learning English and finding decent employment were their top priorities.
The world of colleges and universities was so far beyond them that when they drove their son to the university dorms on his first day they just dropped him off. Chances are the campus environment made them uncomfortable and if they didn’t provide their son with support before, it wasn’t going to happen that day.
Just imagine walking around campus the day before classes start and everyone else has their parents with them except you.
From there this student was on his own to figure out just about everything. This included where he needed to go and what courses he needed to take. Never mind figuring out which program would best meet his education and career goals.
This young man also had no financial support as his parents did not have the means to provide any funding. The only reason he was able to go was because he received a scholarship from his high school.
With this lack of support and direction he struggled with the transition from high school and home to university and residence.
What it really came down to is that he felt that he didn’t belong there. In the video he said that it took him a least a year to realize that he had the right to be there.
Which means that for at least 12 months he didn’t think he had the right to be there, which indicates to me that he must have struggled with his sense of belonging and that there were probably times that he wished he wasn’t there.
This is just one challenge a first generation student faces as they try and navigate a system which is alien to them as it was never a part of their culture when they were growing up.
Current data coming out of the U.S. shows that 24 per cent of students are considered first generation. These students are four times more likely to drop out within the first year of study. Forty-three per cent will leave before they graduate and within a six-year period from the time they start their program only 11 per cent will actually receive a credential. Contrast that with students who are not first generation—within the same six-year period 55 per cent will receive a credential.
Eighteen per cent of first generation students come from low income families and 74 per cent are financially independent which means they don’t have their parents helping with the costs associated with school.
At Okanagan College, I don’t know how many first generation students we have, but I suspect it could be a similar proportion based on the educational attainment statistics that Stats Canada has for this region. I also believe that there are many first generation students who do receive tremendous support from their parents who, although they didn’t have the chance to go to college themselves, understand the value of a post-secondary credential for their children.
Jane Muskens is the registrar at Okanagan College.