Many first-generation college students come from family structures that relied on others in their communities for support.
Mindsets like “If you help fix my car, I’ll look after your kids” and “I’ve got a few extra groceries this month that you can have, and maybe you can spot me next time I’m running low” prevail. This is called a community of interdependence.
Yet, first-generation students are often wary of individuals outside of their community circles and are reluctant to ask for assistance. Institutions of higher education often have individualistic communities built on individual merit, which research shows inherently disadvantages first gens. How then do you gain the trust of first-gen students so that you can become part of their community of support and ultimately aid in their successes?
I have worked closely with first-gen students as an administrator in residence life, as the leader of a campus first-gen student support committee, and as a doctoral student researching the first-gen experience. I’ve learned the following lessons, which I feel are applicable to all student affairs professionals.
Don’t wait for first-gen students to come to you; that may never happen. They are often wary of unknowns and offers of help when no help materializes. They are also commonly hyper-focused on academic objectives that will land them well-paying jobs.
You need to consistently make yourself available via a variety of avenues, both in-person and digital. Send emails. Engage on social media. Suggest buying them a coffee to enjoy together at a dining spot on campus. Offer to join them for a walk. Invite them to a program you’ll be attending.
My experience with the students I’ve engaged with tells me that they can spot a poser at 50 paces and that they’ll share that info with their peers. Conversely, if a student has a meaningful interaction or a good relationship with an administrator, faculty member, or staff member, they’ll share this fact with their peers, too.
Connections can be formed with any member of the institution. Students often report making connections most easily with facilities, custodial, and dining employees. They report this less often with educational leaders because students are wary of people with intimidating titles, fancy clothes, and busy schedules.
This means that those of us fitting any of those latter characteristics need to work harder to make ourselves available proactively and to spend time with students. We need to look students in their eyes, ask about their experiences, and listen. We need to follow through on everything we say we will do, and we need to go out of our way to check up on students we are making connections with, not just after running into them on campus. We need to make ourselves visible and available.
If students only see you at events where they know you have to be or walking past them in the hallway, you’ll only be supporting the notion that you are too busy to be “bothered” outside of your official work duties.
So, consider hanging out where you know students will be. Go to programs that you are not running. The commuter lounge is a likely spot to find many first-gen students, so that might be a great place to meet a student you are working with. Or you can occasionally hang out there alone. Be careful to not bring a lot of work with you, however, as this would just add to the perception that you’re too busy. Instead, this is a great location for a coffee break or those few minutes you have between meetings.
Tell Your Story
If you were a first-generation student yourself, then your current education, professional title, and clothing attire may obscure this fact to students. So, find opportunities to share your own first-gen story to help your students relate to you. If you host a program, make your first-gen perspective part of your remarks. If you have a first-gen newsletter, write up a brief story about your time as a student and offer some related advice.
Consider also adding your name to your campus’s list of first-gen faculty, staff, and administrators. And if there is no such listing, consider creating and advertising it. You could also include it in your email signature, your bio on your departmental website, and on any professional social media profiles you have. And if your campus has any first-generation swag, post it outside your office, wear a pin, or put a sticker on something highly visible like your water bottle.
Students likely think that you’re mostly interacting with them only because you are being paid to do so. (If they only knew!)
When you have the opportunity, tell them why you choose to proactively support first gens, especially if that’s not a named part of your official job function. I am not ashamed to tell students that I find fulfillment in supporting them, as I often wished someone had done that for me when I was in their shoes, and I remain incredibly grateful to the few that did.
I let students know that I relate to what they are going through and love getting to spend time with such resourceful, talented, and driven students. It warms my heart to see them making themselves and their families proud. I tell them this is the part of my job that makes me the happiest… because it is!
It takes time to develop a connection. If you are serving as a student’s mentor, your first few sessions together will likely be awkward. If you are hanging out in your commuter lounge, there’s a good chance that nobody will approach you.
But none of this means that your efforts don’t matter. Students are noticing you. Each time they see you, you are building up their comfort levels with you! So, when you recognize them in the hallway or at an event, you’ll have a better opportunity to engage them. Tell them you noticed the book they were reading, their new haircut, or the textbook they had open. Then ask about it.
These efforts may be slow going, and it may seem like it’s taking a long time to make progress. But don’t lose heart. If you are in it for the long haul, and you are approaching students genuinely, they will eventually see you as part of their community and hopefully turn to you for support. The cultural capital you can share with them at that point could make a huge difference in their educational journey and should leave you feeling satisfied with a job well done.