Teaching First-Generation College Students

First Gen Picture

My parents and grandparents never went away to college. Only my grandfather finished high school. My father, a sheet metal mechanic, rigger and crane operator, took a few college classes later in his life.  My mother, when she was laid off by the Navy after the closure of the Charleston Naval shipyard, started taking night classes and eventually enrolled full-time to become a nurse. She went on to get two master’s degrees and is now a valuable leader her local hospital as the manager of the nursing staff. But as a white, well-spoken doctoral student and resident tutor at Harvard, the assumption most people make is that I, like all of the other Harvard students, have an extensive college pedigree.  That is simply not true, and it is especially not true of many of the undergraduate students I teach and advise.

The actual undergraduate student composition is quite different from the cultural cachet long-associated with Harvard, and this misunderstanding often colors graduate student teacher interactions with undergraduates. Below, I expand upon three particular quotations that struck me at a recent gathering of the first-generation college student union.

1.  “This world of college is not only new to us, but new to our parents.”

Students who are first-generation college students often have burdens that other students do not have to bear. Paramount among these is the responsibility for communicating to their parents what the college experience is like.   Many first-generation college students have to choose their extracurriculars wisely because they do not always have the money to participate in all of the clubs, intramurals, internships and trips that other students are able to pursue without a second thought. Some students are even expected to send money back home to their parents and loved ones.   This has implications for how teachers select their course materials and texts , and this, moreover, does not even begin to address the disparities of teaching, say, biology to first-gen students alongside students whose parents may be doctors. It is hard to avoid these situations, but it is important to consider them when structuring out-of-class assignments.

2.  “Talking one-on-one with someone helped me more than anything else.”

Talking to a mentor or advisor who is informed about the challenges first-generation college students face can be really enlightening. That being said, advising can cut both ways. Many students at the panel I attended felt stigmatized when advisors and professors seemed more interested in prying into their personal lives instead of evaluating the quality of their work. As  instructors, we should seek to strike a balance between discussing academic work and students’ personal lives, even if we might feel an instinct to ask more personal questions.

3. “For me, if I can think about communities I have, I know I belong here.”

Whether it was being a member of the Queer, Latino/a, South Asian or African student communities on campus, all of the members of the panel felt that a connection to cultural organizations made a difference for them. While not all first-generation college students might have a clear cultural organization on campus that they could join, many find support in house communities and among each other in the student union. When structuring learning, we could think more about ways we could invite, join, or participate in events sponsored by cultural organizations on campus.

For other perspectives consider reading the following:

An interview with Jesse Sanchez about his admissions experience at Harvard:


An interview with the Harvard Independent:


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