You send a notice to faculty and staff who you think are more aware of who the first-generation low-income students are on campus. You ask them to please let students know that there will be an opportunity for first-generation and low-income students to have a conversation about their college experience with a visitor to campus who has a special interest in this population of students, and, of course, there will be refreshments.
The demographics represented at the meeting include White, Latinx, African American, and Asian. As the students introduce themselves, it seems that half the students are neither first-generation nor low-income. As part of their introduction, some of their responses about why they chose to come to this conversation include the following:
“I’m not first-gen or low-income. I came because I want to hear about the experiences of first-generation students in order to find out what I might be able to do to make the campus more welcoming and inclusive.”
“I’m not first-gen or low-income. I want to learn more about first-generation students because I plan to teach and work with students who may be first-generation students, and I want to learn as much as I can.”
“I’m a first-generation college student and I came in order to meet other first-generation students and to learn more about the university from their perspective.”
“I’m not first-generation low-income but it has been extremely challenging for me to find other people of color for my friend group. I had to ask people and hunt for people of color.”
“I’m not first-generation and I’ve never had to worry about money for college, but I want to know where to put my efforts as a gay White man. I want to share my voice and perspective and I’m wondering how that might play out in class and on campus.”
“I’m a first-generation low-income student and I came to encourage other first-gen students to join a new group I’m forming that will be a First-Generation Student Union or Club.”
“I’m White and I can’t imagine how it must be for students who are not White. I want to learn about their experience.”
“I’m a first-generation low-income student, and I came to the meeting to open up to other people about my background and my experience at the University.”
When we have the spotlight on first-generation college students, we may tend to think about the many degrees of separation possible between them and their more privileged peers. We may need to facilitate their coming together to discover shared connections such as valuing equity and social justice.
Colleges and universities are making progress in understanding that it’s not just first-generation students who need to adapt to the college; the institution must adapt to students, as well. Creating a climate that fosters a sense of belonging for all students is the responsibility of all within the community, and special programs for first-generation, low-income students cannot be successful without collaboration on goals across the institution.
First-generation, low-income students tell us that they want faculty to reach out to them and not place the entire burden on students to become involved and engaged. Who else should reach out? A source that might not be tapped is those students who are not first-generation, low-income students, but have a desire to be active in creating a more welcoming and inclusive campus but don’t know how they can have an impact.
When a diverse group of students from widely varying backgrounds and college experiences can come together to share their stories and experiences, we may want to add this to our inventory of ways to reduce intangible institutional barriers to the academic success and positive college experience for first-generation, low-income students.
Another great resource for working-class faculty and students is the WCPCA: Working-Class and Poverty-Class Academics. There is a group of people eager to assist first-generation students to navigate the ivory towers. Also, there are a number of books written on this topic, including my own: *Servants in the House of the Masters* which is a social-class primer for those who want to better understand the experience of first-generation students and their families.