How faculty and staff can support Iowa’s first-generation students
Thursday, August 29, 2019

I was not, at least initially, what one might call a successful college student.

angela lamb
Angela Lamb

During my first two years at a small private college in Indiana, I struggled with mental health issues, floated from peer group to peer group in an attempt to connect with someone (anyone), and refused to seek help, academic or otherwise, because I was convinced that I could do everything on my own. And if I’m being honest, I most likely didn’t ask for help because I didn’t know help was available.

Every day was exhausting. I remember watching my peers and wondering how they made being a college student look so easy. After two years, I gave up and returned home to rural Iowa, frustrated with myself for not being as successful in college as I had been in high school.

First-generation students often face a unique set of challenges, and often benefit from additional support of faculty and staff who are dedicated to their success. The UI aims to celebrate the many common personal assets that contribute to the success of first-gen students and help them learn to utilize those assets in order to reach their full potential and realize their academic goals.

Examples of current campuswide efforts include the UI First-Generation Task Force, the UI’s designation as a First Forward institution, participation in the National First-Generation College Celebration, and the 1stGen@Iowa initiative.

I eventually earned a BBA in management from the University of Iowa (and later an MA in educational policy and leadership studies), but completed my degree over an additional five years while I worked both a full- and part-time job in order to pay my bills. Five years after earning my undergraduate degree, I was made aware of a term I had never heard before: first-generation college student. Suddenly all of my struggles, all of my confusion and absolute determination to overcome the obstacles I had faced, made sense.

Many colleges and universities, including the UI, are now talking about the unique backgrounds and needs of first-generation students.

Nearly one in four UI students identifies as first-generation. But remember: This identity isn’t visible, and some students may be hesitant to divulge their status.

First-generation students experience higher education differently than their peers and often struggle with lower retention and graduation rates. Therefore, it is imperative that institutional leaders remain committed to their success, and that faculty and staff who encounter them every day better understand their experiences.

Here are some key points for faculty and staff to remember:

  • Some first-generation students have familial obligations that conflict with their academics, or they must navigate situations where families do not understand the level of their collegiate responsibilities. Develop policies that are flexible and take into account the changing demographics and various needs of all students.
  • Language matters. Don’t just say, “Come to my office hours.” Instead, explain what this means (some students mistake this for, “Hours that I’m working in my office and don’t want to be bothered”), and explain why stopping by is important, or give examples of when a visit could be valuable. 
  • Refrain from using too many confusing acronyms or terms that are specific to your discipline (or higher education in general) without providing context and explanations. Students eventually need to learn this information, but don’t assume that every student already knows.
  • Introduce yourself. Clear up any confusion that students may have about how you expect or want to be addressed, and ask them about their preferences as well.
  • Emphasize the importance of seeking help, and point out that students who ask for help are not displaying weakness. They are, instead, doing what is necessary for almost every college student to succeed.
  • Lean in to your students. If something seems off or is worrisome, reach out to the student and connect them with campus resources. Use this Quick Guide for Helping Students for more information on how to assist students. Visit the 1stGen@Iowa website for more information about how you can better support first-generation students.
  • In class, model and share reading strategies from your field and demonstrate note-taking strategies that work best for your approach to teaching.
  • Use the power of “yet.” First-generation students may struggle with imposter syndrome and wonder if they belong in college. The answer, of course, is yes. Remind students to approach learning from a growth mindset—that they may not be able to do something…yet, and that with continued practice and academic skill-building, they can be successful.
  • A sense of belonging and knowing that every person matters is important for academic success at all educational levels. Create inclusive classroom environments and learning spaces, embrace diversity in all forms, design and teach courses that foster talent in all of your students, and do not allow microaggressions or other forms of harassment to go unchallenged.

While the UI still has work to do, we have made a lot of progress in helping our first-generation students be successful. We have a lot to be proud of, as do our students. I’m excited to be part of this work and look forward to what is yet to come.

Angela Lamb is assistant director of academic support and retention in the University College. She also co-chairs Iowa’s Charter Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and serves as a functional lead of the UI First-Generation Task Force.

What is a first-generation student?

At the University of Iowa, a first-generation student is a student who does not have a parent or legal guardian who completed a four-year degree. About 25% of UI undergraduates identify as first-generation, and many may be unaware of the existence of this identity.

Why does this matter? What makes first-generation students so different from their peers? Most UI first-generation students arrive with academic profiles similar to their peers, yet recent UI data show they continue to be retained at lower rates (the fall 2017 first-year cohort experienced an 80.2% retention rate, compared to 89.4% of their continuing generation peers) and historically have lower six-year graduation rates (59–62% vs. 69–70%). First-generation students also lack much of the social and cultural capital their peers are able to draw from, often have fewer financial resources, and tend to arrive on campus with less “college knowledge” other students may have picked up from their parents.

However, first-generation students are also more likely to be more confident in their financial literacy skills, demonstrate more resiliency and grit, have numerous accomplishments and unique experiences to draw from, and are particularly skilled at navigating systems.

Because first-generation students come from a multitude of backgrounds, they have no single defining characteristic. However, because of the group’s diversity, first-generation students contribute to a more enriching and deeper educational experience for their peers, both in and outside of the classroom. And many first-generation students indicate a strong desire to one day give back to their communities and work toward a more just, equitable world. In short, first-generation students are accomplished individuals who exhibit strength and perseverance.