Community Support for First-Generation Graduate Students

We cannot assume that just because they successfully navigated their undergraduate years they will smoothly sail through graduate training, write Arnaldo Diaz Vazquez and Natalie Lundsteen.

August 9, 2021
 
 
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First-generation graduate students, the first in their family to attend college and then go on to graduate school, can lack understanding about the whole process of obtaining a Ph.D. and how to navigate the research environment experience -- from the application and admission process through to career transitions and alumni status. The experiences of first-generation grad students can mirror the challenges that first-generation undergrads face, but graduate school certainly opens up new obstacles and unknowns.

We cannot assume that just because a first-generation student successfully navigated their undergraduate years they will smoothly sail through graduate training. From our experiences advising graduate students, we see that institutions recognize the challenges of first-gen undergrads, but they may not give as much attention to such concerns for such graduate students. Following are some of our thoughts for both first-generation students and the people in colleges and universities who support them.

For First-Gen Grad Students

If you are the first in your family to follow the path to a graduate degree, you may often feel totally alone, without people to ask for explanations or role models to look to for cues on how to navigate through graduate school. This is true not just in the learning that occurs in graduate school laboratories and research groups but also in all other aspects of graduate student life.

On the personal side, you might become confused about many aspects of graduate student financial processes, such as understanding income-tax ramifications or setting up health benefits. You may not recognize the importance of engaging in certain extracurricular activities or how and when to apply for fellowships and other funding. You may not know about campus support resources such as career development, a writing center or tutoring -- or, on the flip side, you might feel singled out for remedial support and feel like you are the only one being routed to tutoring.

You might feel a great deal of anxiety about being "the only one" -- whether it is being the only one to ask a question in group settings or being perceived as the only one who doesn't know something fundamental about graduate school. In graduate school, you may find yourself for the first time far away from the support system of family and friends, yet you may also feel the burden of needing to be a complete success in your graduate education, and thus unable to let your family see your struggles. Or when you do share with your family some of your concerns about graduate school, the realities of your new life may be completely unknown and incomprehensible to those who have not had the experience.

What first-generation graduate students need most of all for success is a sense of belonging, usually within a community. Essential aspects of community include mutual interdependence among members, connectedness, trust, interactivity, common expectations, shared values and goals, and overlapping histories among members. That translates in graduate school to finding camaraderie and means more than just a circle of friends -- it should be a safe space where you can ask anything and be yourself. Research culture prizes academic progress above all other things, and research is often an independent venture, but you cannot be successful without support from a community.

Finding community on a campus is important for all graduate students, and while informal groups and friendships certainly provide support for first-generation students, more formal or established groups can provide more information and strengthen and expand relationships. They can also offer safe spaces where you can ask anything and be yourself, as well as discover you're not the only one experiencing graduate school challenges.

The most common places for finding community and safe spaces are student-led organizations, student centers, or groups focused on wellness, gender, identity or diversity/multicultural affairs. These communities may focus on undergraduate student support on your campus, but they are at least a starting point to create or expand spaces for graduate students if they otherwise don't exist. In addition, on every campus, you can find faculty members or administrators open to sponsoring and supporting development of your group or organization if you wish to create a space for graduate students. Graduate career advisers, diversity educators and student affairs professionals are just a few of the people who might be able to help.

Be open and willing to take advantage of all mentors, beyond your academic supervisor. Build trust with the mentors you have, but also seek out new ones. Remember, they will not necessarily come to you and ask if they can mentor you.

Get to know staff as well as faculty, and from there develop relationships, especially with those who work in career development offices, writing centers or teaching/learning centers. Faculty and staff who serve as advisers to campus cultural organizations and clubs are another important resource. You will find a variety of role models, and if you are not aware of other first-generation students on your campus (although there probably are some), you will certainly find role models among graduate school alums who are out in the world doing amazing things and willing to speak with you.

Build your skills, confidence and self-efficacy. To advance in your graduate education and into a subsequent career, you'll certainly have to move out of your comfort zone. But the concept of community means you'll have a comfort zone to return to for catching your breath and regrouping when needed.

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If you are an older graduate student, remember not everyone knows the things that you do. Once you have a seat at the table, bring more chairs -- encourage others and be attentive to new students who might be lost or uncertain. That said, you may also sometimes feel pressure to mentor and help others. Do work that supports other first-generation graduate students if and when you can, but it's OK if you would rather not or need to focus on other things at certain times.

For Those Working with First-Gen Grad Students

All members of an educational community have the responsibility to ensure training spaces center on respect, promote inclusion and diversity, value mentorship, and encourage professional and personal growth. We often don't share best practices around first-generation advising, or we assume colleagues in other offices are managing this.

You should recognize that mentoring is a two-way relationship and avoid making assumptions and generalizing when interacting with first-generation graduate students. Students who may appear self-sufficient or thriving may actually need support, and not all first-generation students should automatically be placed in tutoring or remedial programs. Individual Development Plans (IDPs) are a great tool for students to engage in self-reflection and then guide you in subsequent conversations to specific areas of concern for them.

If you already support first-generation students, share what you know with colleagues who may not have as much experience. If you are new to working with this population or haven't really considered it before, look to colleagues who can help you increase your expertise. You may be able to develop new knowledge and skills while providing essential support and information. If you were a first-gen graduate student yourself, sharing your story could empower others.

Think about resources on your campus that support graduate students, and recognize that first-generation students may find it difficult to locate and access them. Consider what it might be like to come to your campus without any knowledge of its culture and practices, and identify the avenues or resources where graduate students can look for help.

As you assess how your graduate students might navigate your campus, keep in mind concepts of accessibility and transparency of information. We often fall back on the assumption that our students are obviously intelligent and therefore should be able to find their way through processes and activities without guidance. If you have worked in your role for more than a few years, it's easy to forget how much information new students must absorb to assimilate into graduate school culture. So think back to what it felt like to be brand new to your role and environment. Many campuses offer "re-orientation" programming, a fantastic way to help students discover or re-engage with campus resources after the period of core courses or qualifying exams has passed.

Finally, consider if your campus offers communities or spaces where first-generation students might find support. If you can't think of any, work to create graduate-student-friendly group resources. If such groups or spaces do exist, and you do not already engage with them, reach out to their leadership or organizers to learn more.

Bio

Arnaldo Diaz Vazquez is assistant dean for diversity and inclusion, and Natalie Lundsteen is assistant dean for career and professional development, both at UT Southwestern Medical Center's Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. They are both members of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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