Engaging first-in-family university learners

"We’re the first in our families to go to university – this is brand new to us. The only thing I learned about university before I came was on [a] flyer." (Mike)

The quote above is from a small group interview with students who were both first in their families to come to university and who also identified as being Indigenous peoples within Australia.

The group spoke at length about some of the issues that they had encountered in this journey to university. Most had moved from regional or remote areas to take up their university places and had struggled with an environment that they initially found to be both intimidating and alien.

Yet each had persisted and alluded to various factors that assisted them to stay; the dynamics of family, culture and individuality featured strongly in these narratives of persistence. Recognising our student populations in terms of their rich diversity avoids presumptions of lack or deficit as well as providing the foundations for more appropriate forms of support and engagement.

University participation

Globally, learners who are the first in their family to come to university are a growing and significant proportion of our commencing student population. Yet internationally, these high rates of participation do not necessarily equate to similarly high rates of success within the higher education environment.

Instead, in countries where statistics on this group are collected systematically – such as Canada and the United States – this first-in-family cohort is reported as experiencing higher rates of attrition when compared to their second and third generation peers.

This increased risk of departure is partially a result of the intersectionality of these learners. This is a complex cohort that may be overlapped by various equity categorisations. Similarly, the lack of a ‘knowledgeable other’ within the family or community able to provide necessary insider knowledge of higher education institutions can further impact on learners’ educational trajectories.

We take as a starting point that higher education systems across the world are highly stratified, this stratification demonstrated by the higher rates of access and success enjoyed by those from more affluent or advantaged backgrounds which correlates; an educational disparity indicated by statistics on global academic achievement.

Too often it is the ‘individual student’ who is blamed for this lack of success with little regard for other contextual and social factors. Instead, it is important to recognise that for those students who are older, poorer or simply not from white middle-class backgrounds, the ‘risks’ associated with higher education participation are manifold.

Such risks can relate to the complexity of managing competing demands (familial and cultural), various emotional and financial challenges as well as concern and fears around identity formation. Those learners who experience financial disadvantage may also have their choices of university curtailed by geographical proximity or have a deep aversion to taking on student debt.

Cultural wealth

Yet rather than focus on what learners may ‘lack’ or perceived deficits, it is vital that universities actively recognise and celebrate what students arrive with, specifically the richness of existing cultural wealth and epistemologies. For example, in our research with first-in-family students from a diversity of backgrounds, the deeply powerful nature of family was repeatedly acknowledged in interviews and surveys.

This ‘family capital’ provided a range of embodied and practical supports that while not generally recognised or celebrated within higher education, variously afforded the necessary tenacity, motivation and resilience to participate in studies.

While family and community members may not necessarily have an ‘insider’ knowledge of the institution, their role in this decision to attend was apparent, a choice often bound up with the educational biographies of learners’ social and familial networks.

For older first-in-family students in particular, this interconnectedness was often articulated in terms of opening up the ‘educational futures’ of children and other family members. The intergenerational implications of this return to education was very significant with research participants often describing themselves in terms of being ‘role models’ or cultural change agents within the household.

However, equally important is the recognition that as first-in-family students enter the higher education landscape there may be others on the sidelines witnessing this return. For students this can often translate into an ‘invisible’ pressure to succeed.

These are the pioneers in the community so if they fail then university can be regarded as even more ‘out of reach’ for others. Similarly, if these individuals depart from academia, others’ educational decision-making may be altered or prematurely foreclosed.

Implications for universities

So what does this mean for how higher education institutions retain and engage this particular cohort? The following recommendations are based on surveys and in-depth interviews conducted with over 300 first-in-family students (and family members) between 2013 and 2015.

This research was conducted across a number of Australian universities and detailed findings are outlined in the forthcoming publication: First-in-Family Students, University Experience and Family Life: Motivations, transitions and participation. In summary, the following propositions are recommended:
  • • Adopt a strengths-based approach when considering student populations; this would include recognising and celebrating what students arrive with rather than defining diverse cohorts in terms of lack or deficit. This is particularly the case for first-in-family learners, as being the first is a triumphant undertaking and therefore should be foregrounded as such in institutional dialogue and terminology.

  • • Bring significant others on the journey with these students – avoid engaging solely with the individual and instead remain mindful of the embedded nature of this first-in-family cohort. Recognise how familial networks are not necessarily just ‘extra baggage’ or possible negative influences but can also be powerful sources of resilience and encouragement.

  • • Create the space for support networks that criss-cross student and staff populations, consider foregrounding first-in-family staff stories as these can be both a source of inspiration and also have the potential to ‘open up’ educational vistas.

  • • Normalise the non-linear nature of educational biographies in recognition that a direct pathway from school to university is no longer the norm for many of our students.

  • • Recognise the ‘experiential capitals’ that individuals, particularly older learners, have acquired through a priori life or work experiences. Explore how such experiential capital might be used to underpin curriculum structures and also programme structures.

  • • Engage first-in-family students in networks of support that recognise both their collectivity but also individuality and uniqueness – these students arrive with cultural strengths, but the challenge for institutions is to work with learners in all their individuality rather than expecting them to change or disregard their existing capabilities.
Associate Professor Sarah O’Shea is an Australian Teaching and Learning Fellow who works at the University of Wollongong in Australia. O'Shea's research broadly focuses on student access, engagement and participation within the university sector, with particular reference to students from identified equity groups including those from low-socio-economic status backgrounds, Indigenous students, mature aged students as well as first-in-family learners. She is co-author of First-in-Family Students, University Experience and Family Life: Motivations, transitions and participation (Palgrave Macmillan) with colleagues (May, Stone and Delahunty). For further details about O'Shea’s research and publications please see: ResearchGate