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Two female university student friends in their dorm bedroom are studying together while sitting on the bed

Living-learning communities for first-generation students can promote belonging and keep them engaged with their peers on campus.

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Many colleges and universities offer first-generation and low-income students the opportunity to participate in a scholarship program to boost their retention and graduation rates. The wraparound supports can benefit the college’s definitions of success, but what do first-gen, low-income scholars think of their college experience?

DeAnna Katey, the director of undergraduate student programs at Virginia Tech’s Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, implemented a qualitative study of the student perspective on first-generation living-learning community participants and what higher education leaders can learn from them.

Katey shared the study’s results at the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition Annual Conference in Seattle, Wash. in February.

The study: In her research, Katey focused on the lived experiences of five low-income, first-generation students (defined as those whose parents did not complete a bachelor’s degree) who are participating in a scholarship program at a large institution (50,000 students) in Texas.

To maintain their scholarship program, students agreed to live on campus in a living-learning community (LLC), earn 30 credits each academic year and participate in a first-year seminar course, among other qualifications.

Within the LLC, students met with a peer mentor regularly and attended four enrichment activities and four social events each year. Students also had to be involved in some kind of campus organization and maintain at least a 2.5 GPA. 

Research participants were in their second year or higher, reflecting on their experiences at college so far.

The themes: Throughout the interviews, Katey identified five common themes

  • Financial need. Each student participant is considered a low-income learner, which students said impacted their choice of institution. Students said they selected this institution because the scholarship program alleviated financial burdens, which was important because they did not want to be a detriment to their families. The institution may have been geographically further from home, but the financial aid factor was critical.
  • Importance of family support. Family is important to the students, but this comes with challenges as well. For some, college was the only option after high school because their families wanted them to go on to a successful career path. However, there were strains between parents and the students because of physical distance from home. While students were trying to help their families by accepting admission to a further college with greater financial aid, their families often requested they come home or be closer to home so the student could be supportive in that way.
  • Strong motivation for attending college. Each student had strong desires to attend and complete college to show appreciation to their parents, give back to their families, break the cycle of poverty or establish financial freedom.
  • Value of social experiences. Students said participating in the living-learning community had a positive impact on their overall experiences, and the required events and activities created a safe space for them to develop relationships. The scholarship program also paid for study abroad if the students chose to participate, which was valuable to the students.
  • Challenging academics. Students spoke about the level of difficulty of their academic courses and how it detracted from their ability to go home or engage with their families in new ways that they didn’t experience in high school. However, the LLC provided easy access to study groups and the first-year experience course helped prepare learners for college academics.

Recommendations: Based on the students’ responses, Katey offers five recommendations for higher education leaders looking to support low-income and first-generation students.

  • Create intentional spaces. Students spoke of the value of their LLC and how it provided opportunities to connect, so consider how to unite students in place and space.
  • Educate parents about the college experience. First-generation parents often want to support their student but, because they are unfamiliar with the structures of higher education, they miss the mark. A pre-college activity or parent orientation can help educate parents on the experiences and expectations students will have, getting their buy-in earlier.
  • Connect students with older peers. Mentors helped guide first-generation students, which students said was valuable to their learning and development.
  • Push them to spend time on campus. The required events, in addition to creating community, also helped students stay involved on campus and promoted professional development, which can be important for building students’ cultural capital and success after graduation.
  • Provide institutional aid. Financial need was one of the greatest factors in a student enrolling and participating in the LLC, so higher education leaders should continue to prioritize offering need-based aid to students as part of supporting their success.

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