How to champion first-generation students at university

first-generation students need additional support since it is always not easy
All students find it challenging to plan their next steps after school, but it can be especially hard for first-generation students.

Being first in your family to go to university - a ‘first-generation student’ - is not always easy. The academic careers of students whose parents went university are usually more successful than those of first-generation students, research has shown. Thus, additional support for this group is needed.

Working as hospital cleaner aged just 13, I could never have dreamt I’d secure a role as a PhD candidate in the Imaging and Oncology division at University Medical Center Utrecht, with a post-master's degree in clinical epidemiology. I came from an unstable low-income family in the Netherlands and cared for other family members. After failing my exams, I had to retake secondary school in another town, living on my own and working to pay my bills. With several paid jobs in my final year, I had a rough start to university.

Based on my experiences of being the first in my family to go to university, with social and financial challenges along the way, I can draw lessons for universities to champion students facing similar challenges:

Meet secondary-school students where they are

The bridge between secondary education and university is very important, as this is where students decide on their next step. All students find it challenging to plan their next steps after school, but it can be especially hard for first-generation students. I only had a vague plan to continue into college after school; I had no real idea what a university education meant.

In the Netherlands, universities often have study choice days, career counsellors and open days. In addition to these activities, universities can visit and cooperate with secondary schools. For instance, Utrecht University and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam organise such visits and offer diverse programs to prepare pupils on what university entails or inspirational talks. Partnering with local municipalities who have a better understanding of their populations may also help institutions to reach students who may benefit most from these programs.

Support before and during study

First-generation students have vastly different backgrounds, ranging from students with encouraging parents and stable living conditions to students who have insecure living conditions, little social and financial support and less access to diverse networks. This may complicate their first steps into university. They may struggle to navigate the university system and feel daunted by admissions processes, without parents or peers to help them. Universities can offer support and training programs both at the application stage and once students have enrolled, so first-generation students have the best chance of realising their potential.

Helpful guidance could focus on a range of areas from writing or speaking skills and career counselling to basic tutoring for developing study and cognitive or social-emotional skills. For instance, I did not know about the importance of internship and student exchange opportunities, relevant work experience, building a network or about “appropriate behaviour” within the university.

Enable network and mentoring opportunities

A network and mentoring program with mixed-background students can be helpful; older, experienced students can interact with younger students, and learn from each other. Unifying voices can be very supportive for helping each other to get through stressful times. Inviting former first-generation students can help students feel comfortable disclosing concerns or fears in an unusual environment. Furthermore, cooperation with businesses can also be useful for sharing and inspiring experiences and lessons learned by former first-generation students, and for inviting current students into workplaces.

Assist and broaden financial opportunities

Finances were top of mind throughout the first three years of university as I had to fund everything myself. I was also not aware of the additional financial burden on top of tuition fees. This created a lot of pressure and concerns about paying for a laptop, textbooks and course materials, meaning I struggled to focus on my studies. Furthermore, I took some language training at university as I struggled with Dutch, English and public speaking. Such courses help to develop appropriate reading, vocabulary, comprehension and critical-reading skills, but can be very expensive.

Setting up funds or loan periods for study books or laptops or facilitating opportunities to do paid internships abroad, could all help. Waiving fees entirely might not always be possible or realistic for universities, but providing consultation on financial challenges and incentives that support students with study tools or offer use university equipment when they struggle financially would help.  

Be accessible and transparent

For me, the university was sometimes a maze and not because of the large buildings. My experience is that those who need support in unknown areas do not know where to go, how to access help or whether help exists at all. It is important that all support initiatives are easy to find. Make sure that related initiatives are clearly signposted on the university website and mentioned in any welcome materials. And to make it accessible, employ students to promote these resources to their peers.

Language is important: everyday layman's language is preferred to academic language when students encounter a university at the first time. Pay attention to the use of appropriate words in supporting programs. Personally, I dislike “higher” and “lower” school terms. Even the title “first-generation student”, while it should be celebrated, could be perceived as stigmatizing by some.

Be engaged and try to understand first-generation students

This is perhaps the most important one and a lack of it explains why the previous five lessons may fail: it is important to track the first-generation experience and proactively engage with students to identify challenges and diverse socioeconomic, cultural and practical needs. This knowledge can guide the development of personalised support and training. For instance, without realising it, training or course designs with related costs may be biased against students with financial challenges. An equally effective way to reduce design bias is by asking for student feedback early and often.

First generation students are not one homogenous group, but a varied diverse set of individuals so a wide range of support measures should mean those who need specific advice and help can find it and feel welcomed and included into their institution.

Charisma Hehakaya, a first-generation (PhD) student, took the initiative to establish the First-Generation Fund. She has also experienced challenges during her studies. Charisma would like to give back knowledge, experience and financial support to other and future first-generation students at Utrecht University.

Charisma completed a bachelor and master Science, Business & Innovation: Life & Health and master Business Administration at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Since September 2018, she has been working on her PhD at the Division of Imaging & Oncology at UMC Utrecht and recently completed the post-master Clinical Epidemiology at Utrecht University. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter