First-Generation Students: A Guide for Supporting Academic Trailblazers and Their Families

3 Strategies for Supporting First-Gen Students 

Research shows that first-gen students struggle to gain a sense of belonging. Low-income, first-generation students face additional barriers.  

ACUE partners with schools who are excelling at supporting first-generation learners and who understand the critical role faculty play in building relationships that engage first-gen learners and keep them engaged. In this post we’ll define key terms, share links to related resources, and provide three practical strategies for how faculty, staff, and higher ed leaders can support first-gen learners and increase engagement and retention. 

Strategies at a glance: 

  • Demystify campus language.  
  • Cultivate a sense of belonging in first-generation families.  
  • Reduce the impact of imposter phenomenon.  

First-Generation Students are students whose parents did not complete a bachelor’s degree. This group is comprised of students who are first in their immediate and extended families to attend college, as well as first-generation, low-income students.  

  • 30% of first-generation learners drop out of college after 3 years.
  • Only 11% of students who identify as both first-generation and low-income graduate with a bachelor’s degree within 6 years of matriculation.

1. Demystify campus language

“College has a whole language of its own,” says Alvin L. Johnson, director of academic advising services at Prairie View A&T University. “It took me a while, as a student, to understand it all. Like, what is a registrar? What is a bursar?” 

Insight: Create glossaries to help first-generation students navigate through the terminology. Provide an accessible online or hard copy to provide during open house or orientation events. 

Resource: Check out a Higher Ed Glossary from the U.S. News & World Report with terms and definitions commonly used by colleges and universities to support students and their families. 

Insight: Avoid acronyms, which are another example of terminology that can be confusing to newcomers, especially first-gen students. “We think very carefully anytime we’re creating a flier, making an announcement, sending an email, talking directly to students or in a presentation,” says Evelyn R. Espinoza, of California State University, Los Angeles

24% of surveyed first-generation students said they were aware of a center on campus dedicated to first-gen students. 

2. Cultivate a sense of belonging in first-generation families

Students who are first in their families to attend college contend with unique challenges. They are more likely to come from poor-performing high schools, low-income backgrounds, and households where English isn’t spoken. And without the benefit of parents’ college-going experience, they have fewer tools to navigate college bureaucracies and day-to-day campus life.  

Insight: Cultivating a sense of belonging in first-generation families is one critical strategy. At the California State University, Los Angeles created a Parent Academy for parents of first-time college students that provides workshops at orientation and throughout the year for parents covering topics on transitioning to college life, student mental health, and financial aid. Parents who attend all three sessions are presented with a Certificate of Completion during the final program and become Parent Academy Alumni.  

3. Reduce the potential impact of imposter phenomenon

“It’s important that students recognize that imposter phenomenon is ‘normal’ to feel,” says Nicole Blalock, assistant professor of American Indian Studies at California State University, Northridge. Discussing these feelings can help students reframe their thoughts and feelings from “This means I don’t belong” to “Most of us have experienced this.” 

Insight: Share your story to normalize and reduce the potential impact of imposter phenomenon. At The University of Southern Mississippi, where about 31% of students are first-generation, faculty and staff celebrate National First-Gen Celebration Day as part of a larger first-gen community. Through a partnership between USM’s Center for Faculty Development and Office of New Student and Retention Programs, faculty and staff have worked to become more public and outspoken about being the first in their families to attend college. 


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