Education

First-generation students often view their identities as a source of influence and power (opinion) | Inside Higher Ed

“At my high school, folks said because I was brown and an immigrant, I was going to have ​duck​ and impostor syndrome ​at Stanford. The expectation was that I would hit a wall, but I feel like I belong at Stanford and I’m happy to be here,” Xavier, a second​-year undergraduate, told us.

“The transition wasn’t always easy, though, as Hispanic households want you to stick close to home,” he added. “However, I wouldn’t be here without my parents’ unconditional support and reassurance. My mom says ‘You grew your wings yourself — I’m not going to cut them.’”

Although highly accomplished scholars, students like Xavier share identities that are often minoritized within higher education. Xavier’s reflection highlights how, too often, narratives about the identities of first-generation and/or low-income students, or FLI students (pronounced “fly”), center on stories of depravity, otherness and barriers to success. Xavier, like other trailblazers, arrived on our campus well aware of the ​deficit-based assumptions people have about his background: that he and others like him lack the cultural skills and experiences needed​ to successfully acculturate to institutions of higher education.

Our conversation with him led us to additional discussions with other students at Stanford University who identify as first generation and/or low-income. Although many people have tried to define such students by their disadvantages, our students viewed their first-generation and/or low-income identities as a source of influence and power. To them, FLI people persist and thrive because of, not despite, their identity.

Nov. 8 is National First-Generation College Celebration Day, where campuses across the country celebrate the success of students, faculty and staff who identify as part of the first-generation community. In this article, we hope to contribute to this celebration by exploring how: 1) FLI students leverage their backgrounds as assets when navigating higher education and 2) what practices administrators can employ to support their advancement.

Perspectives of FLI Students

Though challenging, our students told stories of reclaiming painful experiences as motivation for academic pursuits, a form of navigational capital. Navigational capital is part of ​Yosso’s model of community cultural wealth — an asset-based approach that was originally applied to highlight the unrecognized cultural skills and knowledge students of color bring to social institutions.

Yosso’s model is a lens through which we can also frame our interactions with FLI students by understanding the precollege skills and experiences that they bring to campuses across the country. One Ph.D. candidate in engineering told us about pursuing his doctorate: “I benefit from my military training and being older, especially when it comes to presenting myself in a certain way, being strategic and being political.​” He explained further, “Given we were a low-income family and my parents had to work five jobs growing up, I was surrounded by kids who had little parental oversight, which led me to a street life that landed me in jail. Through these experiences, I became comfortable with uncertainty, vigilance and situational awareness — skills I use when planning a project or experiment and working on a team.”

Chris, another one of our interviewees, exemplifies how his multiple intersecting identities have influenced his academic pathway. ​Intersectionality is a theoretical framework coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw ​for understanding how aspects of a person’s social identities overlap and interact with various structures of discrimination and privilege.

We discussed with Chris how being at the intersection of FLI, Black and queer identities has shaped his experiences as a third-year law student. “Being Black and being queer are the two biggest additions to my FLI identity,” he said. “There is privilege that comes with being a man and a Stanford alum, but I’ve also experienced the impact of how others perceive me, given how I present. Namely being vulnerable and showing softness are things that others don’t expect of Black men, but they are traits that are assumed in the queer community.” He concluded, “But I don’t view all of these stereotypes as barriers. Navigating these various experiences will help me become a better lawyer and connect with so many different people.”

FLI students often convert challenges into victories. Motivated by her experiences, Karla, a second-year undergraduate, has channeled her fear into activism. “As a FLI and Latinx Dreamer, [I was] kind of scared to open up and form connections for fear that others will look at me differently, and question if [being a Dreamer] is the only reason I got in [to Stanford],” she told us. “There’s an increased fear given the current political climate. Despite this fear, I want to build community, so I am researching how to create an organization for Dreamers.”

Despite feeling isolated because of her undocumented status, Karla, like many undocumented students, is highly active and civically engaged.​ Indeed, activism and advocacy were strong connecting themes throughout our interviews.

As one recent graduate has described to us, activism is often symptomatic of her intersecting identities: “At Stanford, my white identity is modulated — especially by the intra-differences of being one of the few working-class white people. Having conversations about income inequality with my white peers has helped me reflect on my positionality. Working at the Martin Luther King Jr. Institute has also given me a perspective on activism historically. I understand that the brunt of this work falls on FLI folks of color.” As an active ally for FLI folks of color, she not only has ​​a ​strong willingness to understand her own privilege, but she takes action on behalf of nondominant groups when it’s her turn to do so​.

Strategies to Support FLI Students

As those of us who work in higher education prepare our students to be successful in and beyond college, we need to take a closer look at how we support FLI communities. We recommend that faculty members and administrators consider the following tangible strategies to champion the success of FLI students.

Recognize, appreciate and affirm differences that exist within the community. ​That is crucial to helping FLI students navigate their personal identity development and flourish within their intersectional experiences. Forming a FLI student group, ​building Listservs, ​​establishing a physical space​, addressing food insecurity and materials costs, and investing in branded FLI materials such as ​​stickers, shirts and media spotlights​ are avenues to highlight the experiences of FLI students on campus. Prioritize visibility and representation by incorporating diverse voices and perspectives into the fabric of such institutional efforts to support FLI students.

Assess needs throughout the full student life cycle and extend resources beyond the first year. Administrators often focus on FLI students at the beginning of the undergraduate experience, but this support must be expanded. Research suggests that as the ​​level of influence coming from students’ family career values increases​​, ​their active pursuit of graduate school decreases. In this way, FLI students need to be ​exposed to academic role models throughout their undergraduate career​. FLI doctoral students often have a ​​diminished sense of belonging and exhibit feelings of “intellectual phoniness.​” In particular, they often speak of the ​​divide between their daily academic practices and their family lifestyle​​.​ Resources to help FLI doctoral students navigate these challenges include ​​onboarding programs, mentorship opportunities with FLI faculty and ​​engaging FLI graduate student groups​.

Create outreach tools to increase visibility and representation. ​For example, Stanford Engineering distributes #DearFutureGradEngineer postcards ​at national conferences and outreach events, which allow prospective graduate students to see themselves at Stanford. Among those profiled are many first-generation and/or low-income students from underrepresented backgrounds, whose postcards inspire prospective students to apply. Additional recommendations include hosting affinity groups for DACA students, inviting queer and trans alumni to FLI career panels, and introducing FLI students to multicultural community centers that provide intersectional programming. ​

Faculty and administrators should also consider whether and how ​they ask students to compartmentalize and conform themselves to a narrow definition of a first-generation and/or low-income person. A holistic institutional approach to supporting FLI students is vital. For example, Texas A&M University’s Regents Scholars Programs provides more than ​​900 FLI students with scholarships, an academic success program, a student group and a newsletter​​ ​​each year.

Equip and empower FLI students with knowledge and tangible strategies to master the ​​hidden curriculum of academe.​ Beyond grades is the hidden curriculum of academia, which assumes that all students: 1) know how to ask for support and resources, 2) are at ease when engaging with faculty and administrators in positions of authority, and 3) will acclimate to a university culture that emphasizes individualism and independence. Colleges can support students’ development of interpersonal skills by hosting workshops and creating resource guides that demystify networking with faculty, navigating office hours, finding research opportunities, managing finances and conducting informational interviews. ​​

Mentorship programs​ and student-led study groups ​can also combat isolationism by providing spaces for FLI students to engage academically with peers while connecting over shared experiences. In addition, communal spaces affirm a cultural normal of interdependence and provide FLI students with leadership opportunities to give back to their communities. Student affairs offices can partner with student groups and invest financial and human resources to support, rather than duplicate, their efforts.

Expand knowledge of first-generation and/or low-income students within and beyond the context of student affairs. ​Many faculty and administrators working with underrepresented populations may draw from personal experiences to connect with the communities they serve. Although helpful when building connections, we must acknowledge the limitations of projecting our own experiences onto students.

Also, as colleges recruit and admit students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, our institutions’ connections to those communities only grow deeper. ​​Sociologists, ​​urban designers and ​​policy analysts​ are just a short list of those who can provide insight into the cultural and societal factors that shape the students who enter our institutions — and inform us of the environments those students return to when they leave our campuses to navigate the duality of their college and home personas.

Leverage first-generation and/or low-Income alumni groups. FLI alumni serve as an excellent source of collaboration for faculty and administrators working to empower their students because they have successfully navigated institutions of higher education. Alumni are distinctly positioned to provide insight and guidance to current FLI students, often having the necessary institutional context to provide tactical and institution-specific advice.

At Stanford, the ​First-Generation and/or Low-Income Network (FLAN) co-creates mentorship opportunities with several faculty and administrators. FLAN recently launched its AlumFli series, an initiative to support graduating undergrad and graduate FLI students and welcome them to FLI alumni life. The series has provided students with a series of workshops, webinars and virtual social events. Example events included a “FLI-nancial Literacy” focused on planning for retirement and “Help! I don’t know what to do after graduation,” which included a panel of FLI alumni sharing their experiences navigating uncertainty in life after undergrad or graduate school.

In conclusion, by centering the perspectives of FLI students and highlighting current literature, we hope we’ve provided insight into their personal narratives and suggested some practical tools for faculty members and administrators at other institutions to engage and empower this important and vital community.

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