Demystifying College for First-Generation Students
Students without a family history of higher education benefit from simple lessons on navigating life in college.
The idea of going to college can be both exciting and intimidating for students, especially first-generation college students.
All students face challenges when navigating higher-ed systems for the first time, from understanding how processes work in college to finding and connecting with support networks—all while leaving the familiarity of home behind. But these challenges are magnified for first-generation college students, who face them without the guidance of a family member who has gone before them.
Colleges and universities invest significant resources in support of student success. The challenge lies in connecting students who need those resources to them.
The good news is that educators can start preparing their high school and even middle school students to seek, access, and utilize resources that can build their agency and bolster their success in college. This begins by teaching students how to find support and how to “speak college” fluently through the use of intentional classroom strategies.
Encourage Students to Build Supportive Networks
As educators, we can set students up for success by ensuring that they have the tools—and the confidence—to develop supportive networks. Knowing how to do so will increase their access to resources in their first year on campus and benefit them far into their futures.
Start by creating a space that is inquiry driven, where student voices are welcomed, and collaboration is central to the learning process. Within this space, leverage these strategies to build student skills and confidence while intentionally creating opportunities for students to reflect and connect.
1. Play the “trading-up game.” In this game, students start with a paper clip and trade it with a peer, teacher, or staff member for something more valuable. For friendly competition, have teams of students compete to see which team can secure the most valuable item. Have students reflect on the skills required to successfully trade their items and apply what they learned to identify the skills needed to build a supportive network.
2. Set up scavenger hunts on college websites. This allows students to practice identifying which department or service they would contact for help with different issues. For example, who should they contact if their meal plan isn’t sufficient or their registration is on hold because they have a late fee?
3. Create space for your students to ideate and problem-solve with each other. Peer-to-peer resources can be just as valuable as academic resources, and learning how to ask peers for help is a life skill that will serve students well beyond their college years.
Teach Students the Language of College
Fluency with any new language is a process that involves moving from talking about familiar concepts with familiar people to talking about familiar concepts with unfamiliar people and, in true fluency, talking about unfamiliar concepts with unfamiliar people.
As educators, a second support we can offer is to help ease the learning curve for first-gen students around college vernacular. For example, not every student enters college knowing that office hours are the time to connect with their professors. Providing students with real-world communication skills and scaffolded support before they arrive on campus will give them the tools they need to ask for help and succeed.
4. Introduce college concepts. For example, show students how professors might grade in their classes using assignments, class discussions, labs, and grading scales. This provides students the opportunity to practice using college language with their peers while in the safe learning environment of the classroom.
5. Walk students through an actual college syllabus with deadlines. Explain how to use it, and discuss the importance of meeting deadlines. Have students practice talking about things like financial aid or registration deadlines with a counselor, admissions officer, or guest speaker.
6. Equip students with the skills to ask for help. They should know how to write an email to request an extension on an assignment with an explanation as to why they need it. Asking for help from people they don’t know and connecting to concepts they are in the process of learning will help them develop the skills and confidence they need to thrive.
Educators have the remarkable opportunity to lend first-generation students the guidance and support they need to succeed and persist in higher education long before they graduate from high school. By teaching students college concepts and how to create supportive networks, educators can reduce the anxiety and uncertainty that too often act as barriers to higher education for many first-generation students and support a future of possibility for all.