Strategies for Supporting First Generation Students

Professional Development
DEIBStudent Success

Article Summary

  • Understand the challenges of first-gen students.|Employ strategies like mentorships and networking activities.|Make sure course models and assignments are clear. |Encourage students to form relationships with their instructors—and each other.
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Janet Mizrahi is a continuing lecturer of professional writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is also an author at BizCommBuzz.

Nearly a third of today’s college freshmen are the first in their families to attend college. Unfortunately, a third of those students will drop out between their freshman and sophomore years.

This sobering statistic makes supporting first generation college students relevant to every instructor who teaches undergraduates.

Here are some strategies and approaches to mitigate the stumbling blocks that hinder these students.

Understand the Unique Challenges Facing First-generation Students

Children who are the first in their families to attend college face many disadvantages aside from not having a parent to mentor them through the process of applying, attending and succeeding at an institution of higher learning.

In addition, they often:

  • Come from low income households in which English is not spoken, and whose high schools have not adequately prepared them for the rigors of college
  • Feel they don’t belong, some suffering from “imposter syndrome
  • May not possess good study skills
  • Lack a network for social and emotional support
  • Carry heavy financial burdens and frequently work 20+ hours/week, which takes a toll on study time

Take Measures to Bolster Success

Instructors can make a huge impact on first generation college students’ success by spelling out expectations and not assuming students know how to navigate the complicated world of higher ed.

Starting with the first day of class, explain college norms—typing papers, referring to the syllabus, visiting resource centers and taking advantage of office hours. Make sure assignments are specific and include models as well as rubrics for assessment.

Refer students to resources on your campus and list them on your course website and syllabus. Create in-class study groups so first-generation students can more easily make friends. (I have my students divided into study pods in which they exchange contact information and do all in-class assignments together.)

Understand that group projects may be problematic for this demographic—attending after-class sessions may be impeded by work schedules.

Being a mentor can mean the difference in a student staying in or leaving college. Consider discreetly approaching students who seem lost or are underperforming and coach them about ways to succeed in your class, in college and in life. The impact of a friendly face and a compassionate attitude cannot be overstated.

Talk to all students about growth mindset, the theory that’s been proven to improve learning outcomes; it’s based on the idea that intelligence and ability are not innate, but born from hard work and learning from failure.

Encourage Students to Cultivate Relationships

Finally, it’s important for students to form relationships not just with professors, but with other students. Point them toward student organizations designed to bring those of like minds or backgrounds together.

Notify them of opportunities on and off campus where they can develop, not just networks but skills. Participating in organizations like Model UN and Toastmasters are great ways for first-gen students to become more confident.

As educators, we’re tasked with teaching the students who arrive in our classrooms. Educating ourselves about the distinct needs of the first-generation student will help us do just that.

For more on supportive teaching approaches, like creating an accessible, student-friendly syllabus, check out these posts and insights