US News recently published an article containing tips for first-generation college students and their parents. Written by Teresa Heinz Housel, the daughter of a factory worker and a stay-at-home mother, it offers encouragement, insights, and practical tips for those who are pursuing higher education for the first time in their family’s history.
Housel has a personal perspective on this subject since she was the first member of her family to go to college. A graduate of Ohio’s Oberlin College in 1990, she became an associate professor of communication at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. She is also the coeditor of Faculty and First-Generation College Students: Bridging the Classroom Gap Together.
Housel recalls her decision to pursue higher education, saying, “I knew that I wanted more than what was around me–I read about people’s lives and I knew there was a lot more out there. I was really fortunate that I had mentors locally who really reached out to me and encouraged me to go to college.”
In an effort to offer first-generation students the same encouragement she was fortunate enough to receive, she offers the following tips and advice:
First, she notes that first-generation students enter “an academic, cultural environment that often has a lot of unspoken rules and sets of cultural mores,” and while it is assumed that they have either experienced or have knowledge of this environment, that may not be true due to their first-generation background. Housel isolates the following challenges these students face in particular: “developing study skills, how to ask questions in class, and how and where to ask for help if they need it.”
So, where can these students go to get the help they need? First, she recommends that they find out if the college or university has a program to assist first-generation students. Programs like these acknowledge that these students don’t just want financial assistance, “but often they need social, academic, and financial support together.”
So what kind of program is most supportive to first-generation students? Housel gives the following example from her own institution: “At Hope College, usually once a year, an etiquette class is offered where students go to a mock formal dinner. They talk about how to use certain utensils, what appropriate topics of conversation with potential employers are, what to wear–and those are really important because if a student is first-generation, they might not have parents who had professional jobs. The student might go out into the job or internship market where they’re in a situation like that, so a workshop like that really helps a student manage really unfamiliar situations.”
Housel recommends that first-generation students take advantage of available on-campus resources, which will vary from school to school. Some of these would include the multicultural education office, the student life office, the office of student support services, or counseling services. Additionally, she recommends that these students take advantage of their school’s career services center to learn how to network to find a job. She points out that they may be unfamiliar with how to network for careers or education since they have may not have witnessed it occurring in their own family.
Housel recalls that one of the issues she faced at Oberlin College was that she did not have a lot of spending money available to her, which is often the case of first-generation students. This makes it difficult for these students who are unaware of the various hidden expenses that are part of college life. She recalls, “I might have had friends that wanted to go out for a meal, and that was a real challenge to deal with situations like that. I had to use survival skills to manage money really well.” Knowing ahead of time that these situations will occur might make it easier to deal with them when they do.
Housel recommends that first-generation students should read available information about the institution they are considering if they are unsure whether a college is the right fit for them. (Advice appropriate for any potential college student, I might add.) She also recommends talking to both alumni of the school and professors who work there. Housel admits, “I never would have thought about this as a first-generation student, but I would encourage them to get in touch with professors with any questions that they have.”
What is Housel’s advice regarding how parents of first-generation students can support their kids? Since these parents do not have college experience and often don’t know what questions to ask or how they can support their child, she recommends that the best support they can offer is emotional support.
“They might not understand everything the student is going through or be able to help in very tangible ways, like to be able to help the student choose classes or give feedback about what to get involved in on campus, but they can still be an emotional support, and the students know that their parents are proud of them and are behind what they’re doing. That’s very valuable,” Housel says.
Housel’s last piece of advice for first-generation students is to rely on their survival skills; skills that a lot of people who have grown up in more affluent homes probably don’t possess. She says that those skills that enabled them to get accepted into their college will be beneficial throughout their college experience. Housel said, “It took me a long time to realize that [we] should be proud of those survival skills, because there are a lot of people that don’t have them.”