Opening the Gates for First-Generation College Students

With the changing demographics of higher education, we are beginning to really grapple with questions about the first-generation college student: what defines them, what drives them, and what gets them to graduation. First-generation college students lack a legacy of information or the institutional knowledge about college passed down through generations of familial and communal college graduates. Without informational sources and support, first-generation students find themselves wandering through a labyrinth of linguist and cultural barriers that define them as “others” in a system dominated by insiders. Like most cultural institutions, some of these barriers were created over time and out of convenience for the ultimate insiders—faculty, staff, and administration—to improve their ability to navigate the system. While other barriers were created as gatekeeping devices precisely to bar the way for these educational “others.”  Admissions processes, “weed out” courses, and academese are all part of the artificially created barriers meant to deter students who “shouldn’t be here.”

Wehler Blog

As a first-generation college student, many of my micro-barriers centered on asking for help whether it on a homework assignment, a graduate school application, or a letter of recommendation. It had little to do with people’s willingness to help me—when I ultimately did ask, people were delighted to offer their assistance—and more to do with my own insecurities about my place in the academic system. Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, I see this same scenario play out with my first-generation students who would rather send me an email to ask a question than raise their hands during class. I say this not out of frustration, but truly, out of envy. If email had been the preferred method of contact (or a method of contact) for any of my professors, I would have certainly taken the same path (of less resistance). That is why I hold such a hope for the ways that technology and online teaching can help us reach, retain, and graduate the first-generation college student. Read More