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First-Generation Students: Needs and Benefits

An Asset Perspective on First-Gen Students

A necessary recognition of very real challenges facing such students should be balanced with helping them express the distinctive knowledge and skills they bring to college, argues William G. Durden.

April 11, 2019
 
 
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Years ago, I expressed concern that, just as the number of marginalized students began increasing in higher education, policy makers and campus leaders historically in power conveniently changed the rules of the game. They devalued publicly and through popular educational theory what had traditionally placed them in power and leadership: a residential liberal arts education. They offered the marginalized aspiring student instead online, career-targeted learning from, at that time, providers of an undifferentiated assortment of quality -- while not forgoing a residential liberal arts education for their own children. Thus, the powerful remained powerful and the marginalized conveniently stayed outside senior leadership.

Today I perceive yet another conceit directed at marginalized students. In this case, some administrators and faculty members -- presumably trying to help the marginalized gain access to and maneuver in higher education -- want to change the historical language of transaction at colleges and universities. The proposition is that the marginalized students’ previous experience and linguistic usage is so alien to the vocabulary of college that only with a more “familiar” wording can they navigate institutions of higher learning with success. Such students, so the proposition goes, cannot comprehend and assess historically privileged spaces -- colleges and universities -- and must have things translated for them.

A case in point is the report “First-Generation Student Success: A Landscape of Programs and Services at Four-Year Institutions,” issued by the Center for First-Generation Student Success in partnership with Entangled Solutions. When discussing the otherwise highly useful report, for example, the co-author Sarah Whitely raised the seemingly small but ultimately debatable notion that one necessary change to benefit first-generation students is the clarification and relabeling of college lingo.

Numerous academic terms are deemed alien and thus confounding to first-generation students, as they likely have not encountered them before. Whitley observed, “I talked to some students during this study who said, ‘I just don’t get what add/drop is and why do we call it that?’” She cited Wichita State University, which “made a decision to shift the term ‘office hours’ to ‘student hours,’ because some first-gen students were saying they didn’t know what ‘office hours’ meant.”

My criticism of such views, even if they apparently originate from some first-generation students, may seem at first trivial and overly harsh. But as a first-generation student myself decades ago (albeit as a Caucasian male and thus not facing a myriad of challenges confronted by students of color and those of other genders), I find this disposition self-harming to marginalized students. It only further stigmatizes them, while those already privileged continue their pursuit of wealth, power and leadership.

The assertion that first-generation students cannot readily figure out a new vocabulary in an unfamiliar setting is damaging to the profile of those students. It raises the question of whether they can situationally learn and succeed in an unfamiliar setting -- a trait highly valued by today’s employers, who often want to hire people who can make productive connections among disparate, unfamiliar elements. Assumptions can then be inappropriately made that first-generation students are “ill equipped” to learn any new knowledge -- whether a foreign language, the vocabulary of math and science, or, for that matter and most absurdly, even new vocabulary beyond that spoken in the familial home -- as they have not encountered it before.

Indeed, one could readily infer from that view that marginalized students must be held to a different level of performance than other students. Such inference could unfairly compromise their professional opportunity following college. Remaining only with what you already know, and requiring the institutions around you to adapt to what you know, could well inadvertently disadvantage first-generation students as they graduate and engage the world where such accommodation is not the rule.

Sheltering first-generation students from the perceived stress of encountering unfamiliar lingo on campuses is also harmful because it can draw the ridicule of critics of any institutional accommodation of the marginalized -- even what is truly necessary -- because it is, in fact, a misplaced emphasis that can be readily attacked as superficial and trivial.

Moreover, a term like “office hours,” for instance, is not only used in academe. First-gen students confront it in many areas of life, such as a doctor’s office and, in fact, it indicates when any business is open. By focusing on such terms, academe suddenly appears to be a space disconnected from the rest of the world, thus confirming the destructive claims of the people who take every opportunity to discredit colleges and universities as absent value and relevance.

First Gens as Change Agents

What is, in fact, vitally necessary to assist first-generation students and any marginalized student in higher education is an emphasis at the precollege level on high-quality preparatory academic course work that provides competency in writing, reading, self-expression, creativity, mathematics and science for later success in higher education. Such students also need to be told early and often that, while they face formidable societal constructs to impede their progress, their very experience brings with it advantages that other people don’t have. And that experience, when recognized and cultivated, can permit them both to excel and make changes in society itself.

For example, I posit that first-generation students make seemingly odd connections because they were given no road map of expectations and shared practice by those in power. This ability to make such creative connections where others see nothing -- or only what has always been and is believed to always be -- is an advantage. It is the seedbed of risk taking and entrepreneurship.

Additionally, I think first gens are wary of social privilege and any unearned status. They possess a productive sense of the absurdity of life and professional posturing, because it is hard for them to believe that they are operating where they find themselves -- both at the university and beyond. First gens also possess an overwhelming sense to complete initiatives thoroughly, as they take nothing for granted. This disposition is combined with a tendency to overachieve, as they possess no inherited standard against which to measure accomplishment in settings with which they are not familiar.

But to feel compelled to change the lingo in the academic setting because first-generation students may not have experienced it is to fall into the deficit side of marginalization -- to stress what they are lacking. I prefer the asset perspective.

Marginalized students -- any students, in fact -- should not be blamed or held accountable for socially constructed impediments to their success before, during and after college. They, in turn, should not be discounted as a change agent and removed from the responsibility to contribute to their own advancement precisely because of who they are -- to know their own distinctive assets out of marginalization and use them.

A necessary recognition of very real challenges facing such students should be balanced with helping them identify and express the knowledge and skills that they bring to college from their distinctive experience. The prevailing culture, in turn, needs to recognize that the insights brought to it by marginalized students can often change it for the benefit of all. They need to listen.

Bio

William G. Durden is president emeritus of Dickinson College and a joint appointment professor (research) in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.

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