Cultivating a Sense of Belonging in First-Generation Students

Approximately 30% of first-generation students, defined as those whose parents did not complete a bachelor’s degree, drop out of college within three years.

These students face unique challenges as they try to navigate postsecondary bureaucracies and daily tasks without being able to rely on a parent’s experience to help make it a smoother transition.

Strategies such as defining institutional jargon, cultivating a sense of belonging in families, and elevating the stories of other first-generation students can help to demystify the experience and create an environment where all students and their families feel they belong.

The three practices highlighted in this toolkit are part of ACUE’s microcredential course Fostering a Culture of Belonging.

The full offering equips leaders, instructors, and staff with actionable practices they can immediately implement to create a culture of belonging across campus, ensuring that all students––including first-generation students––feel seen, heard, and valued.

In This Toolkit

Scroll down to view each element of the toolkit or click the buttons below to be taken directly to a specific section.

1. Demystify campus language.

First-generation students and their families may benefit from a glossary to help them navigate through the terminology that is unique to higher education. 

You may want to provide an accessible online or hard copy of a glossary during open house, orientation, admissions, and residence life events, as well as through any on- or off-campus first-generation organizations.

Download an example of a glossary published by U.S. News & World Report (Narayan, 2011) for first-generation students and their families.

2. Cultivate a sense of belonging in families.

Cultivating a sense of belonging in first-generation families is a key strategy to enable students’ success.

Download our infographic for steps you can take to ensure support for first-generation families.

3. Share your story to reduce the potential impact of imposter phenomenon.

Normalizing feelings of imposter phenomenon, so that students become aware of how common it is among other students, staff, instructors, and leaders, can help them reframe their thoughts and feelings.

They may be able to shift their perspective from “This means I don’t belong” to “Most of us have experienced this.” Download the following resource to learn more. 

Webinar: Fostering Belonging and Supporting Success for First-Generation Students

A Guide for Supporting Academic Trailblazers and Their Families


Cataldi, E. F., Bennett, C. T., & Chen, X. (2018, February 8). First-generation students: College access, persistence, and postbachelor’s outcomes. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Narayan, A. (2011, August 15). U.S. higher education glossary. U.S. News and World Report.