First Generation Students

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn to identify characteristics of first-generation students.
  • Learn to recognize the common barriers first-generation students experience.
  • Learn persistence strategies linked to first-generation student success.
  • Learn to identify different resources available to first-generation college students.


“Don’t live down to expectations. Go out there and do something remarkable.” – Wendy Wasserstein

“Demography is not destiny.” – Engle & Obrie


The start of a graduate program is a time when students are initiated into a new culture and are expected to embrace a new identity. As a new doctoral student you may find yourself playing catch-up with more advanced students and feeling as if you have to learn a new set of rules (see Expectations for Graduate Students). At the same time, you are learning new ways of thinking and are becoming a member of the academy, a scholarly community. 1

The term “first-generation student” refers to a student whose mother’s and father’s educational attainments are at or below a high school 2 and who is the first in their family to go to college. Demographics show that many low-income, first-generation students tend to be older and female, are from underrepresented minority backgrounds, have dependent children, learned English as a second language, and are financially independent from their parents. 3

Consider the following statistics:

  • Nationally, 41 percent of all graduate students in the United States are first-generation students and 14.9 percent of first-generation students are from groups that are underrepresented in graduate education. 4
  • Approximately 31 percent of women who completed a doctoral program are first-generation students. 2

The integration of first-generation students brings an important element of diversity to the academy. A diversity of backgrounds and perspectives contributes to a broader educational experience that helps prepare students to participate more fully in a democracy. 5 Diversity enriches the academic community in many ways, by promoting awareness and understanding, increasing levels of service, and enhancing critical thinking abilities among the group’s members. 6 Ensuring diversity among students, including gender, ethnicity, and the student’s family’s educational background, helps universities fulfill the mission of preparing students to become active citizens in an increasingly global society.

First-Generation Student Barriers

As a first-generation student, you may have experienced one or more of the following barriers:

  • Less support and encouragement from family 7
  • Fewer or no role models of people who have gone through graduate studies
  • Fewer social connections and more isolation 8
  • Perceptions and/or intimations that you wouldn’t or don’t fit in higher education because of your social identity or multiple social identities 9
  • Less knowledge about how to select a school that is appropriate for your goals and interests 10
  • More concerns about financing your education 2,8
  • Less academic preparation 10
  • Multiple memberships in other marginalized groups (e.g., race, income, gender) 11
  • Learning to work with faculty who may not recognize that all students may not understand university culture or institutional expectations 12

Some constraints for low-income, first-generation students are also worthy of mention, such as:

  • Changes in relationships with family members and long-time friends as interests and commonalities become diluted.
  • Family’s and friend’s failure to understand your continuing workload when you go home for a break. For example, families may not understand why you are still reading and writing papers while on “break.” 13
  • The need to attend to responsibilities beyond graduate school such as helping to support your family, i.e., parents and/or siblings, children 12,14 and the need to be employed while attending school. 15

The Transition to Academic Culture

The university setting has its own “culture,” or way of life, with norms and expectations as well as customs and shared knowledge that students master with experience. Students with college-educated parents have cultural and social capital that puts them at an advantage over students who do not have the family experiences to rely on when they embark on their journey through academic life.8 Simply put, this “capital” refers to the benefits and resources that are transferred to students within their family relationships. These social and cultural advantages give students a more solid start to higher education.16

By comparison, first-generation students face unique challenges, as they are less likely to have been well versed in the culture of academic life and the pursuit of opportunities in graduate education. 8 First-generation students frequently come from humble backgrounds without such capital and therefore are more likely to enter higher education at a disadvantage to others.

Students with the benefits of social and cultural capital are more likely to know how to:

  • Talk with a professor about feedback or grades.
  • Negotiate gaining a mentor (see What you Want in an Advisor)
  • Find financial aid and/or a research or teaching assistantship.
  • Write a graduate thesis or paper for publication.

When such help and information are not available within one’s family circle, it is important to take an active role in seeking out resources (see Be Resourceful module) such as connecting with a mentor and becoming involved with professional groups, student organizations, and online professional networking options (see Online Resources and Supports and University Resources for Graduate Students modules).

If you are the first in your family to attend graduate school, you have already demonstrated personal strengths and resilience (see Resilience module) by overcoming barriers during your undergraduate career and getting into graduate school. You may find yourself drawing upon these strengths (see Build on Your Strengths module) such as:

  • Taking pride in your accomplishments and feeling empathy toward others as you adjust to the academic culture of graduate school. 1
  • Building on motivational factors such as becoming the first “doctor” in your family and wanting to finish what you started. 1
  • Believing that you can be successful and viewing academic tasks as important and useful to increase academic success. 17
  • Reminding yourself of the many times you have overcome obstacles in the past.


First generation students are more likely to:

Best Answers: D. Students with college-educated parents have cultural and social capital that puts them at an advantage over students who do not have the family experiences to rely on when they embark on their journey through academic life. Thus, students with college-educated parents are more likely to experience A. By comparison, first-generation students face unique challenges, like B and C, as they are less likely to have been well versed in the culture of academic life.

The Importance of Social Interaction

First-generation students tend to be less engaged in social networks and have fewer supports among their peers. However, research also suggests that these individuals benefit more from extracurricular programs and activities than do students whose parents have attended college.8 If you are a first-generation student, it is important for you to act on opportunities to network with peers and colleagues and to get involved as much as possible in research activities, student organizations, study groups, etc., in order to acclimate to the academic culture of your graduate program. Colleagues and mentors can also help you navigate campus resources and financial aid, share study skills and research tips, and can aid you in planning for future careers.

Strategies for Persisting in Graduate School

In order to give you the edge you need to persist through graduate school, there are a number of strategies you might consider, such as:

  • Being engaged in academic and course-related activities with faculty members and other students.18
  • Realizing you are not alone, nor are you the first person attempting doctoral work with your background. 1
  • Finding a mentor. This could be an older student who has graduated from your program and moved on and likely understands the challenges and nuances of your program or someone in your field’s industry. This may even be someone outside your field of study or from your undergraduate experience.
  • Asking for help when you need it. Having a support system increases student persistence. 19 See the module on “Building Supportive Relationships” for information on the benefits of having your own supportive network and also for ideas on how to create supportive relationships.
  • Locating graduate student organizations that may have a first-generation component. Ask members what was particularly helpful. These organizations may also give you the opportunity to share information you’ve acquired with other first-generation students. This may already exist through national or local organizations such as a graduate women’s association, Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE), MECha (, and black graduate student associations.
  • Talking with your advisor or a mentor about gaps in your knowledge about the processes of graduate school—it may help for them to know that you feel you are blazing this trail alone and may not have anyone to look to for support or with questions that come up. Your advisor or mentor may not know you do not have support because in contrast to ethnicity and gender, which are visually apparent, being a first-generation student is a hidden social identity, similar to class or sexual orientation.

Specialized Resources

Good News: The Tides May Be Changing

A recent report by the Higher Education Research Institute25 suggests that family support and encouragement is on the rise among first-generation students, in addition to greater levels of confidence in their academic abilities.

  • First-generation students should be resourceful (see Be Resourceful Brief) and seek out opportunities that are available. Some examples are:
  • The McNair Scholars Program ( is a national scholarship program supporting first-generation students and other underrepresented minorities who are pursuing doctoral degrees. It has a strong mentoring component.20,21
  • The National Association of Graduate-Professional Students ( is an organization dedicated to helping improve graduate student life.
  • The American Association for University Women (AAUW;
    • Funds several scholarships and grants
    • Has useful information at its website,, on how to connect with peers and make your voice heard.
    • Is committed to “breaking through barriers for women and girls” and offers a plethora of information and ways to get involved.
  • The Association for Women in Science (AWiS;
    • Funds scholarships and grants.
    • Focuses on promoting equality and advocacy for women in the sciences and math.
    • Provides information on networking and other professional opportunities at its website,
    • Published a resource that includes dozens of personal stories: A Hand Up: Women mentoring women in science.22
  • Many first-generation females often perceive they do not fit in either with their working-class communities and families or in doctoral education and academia. First-generation Chicanas, Rendón 23 and Anzaldúa 24 have written about such struggles from their multiple identities as first-generation Chicanas in academia. Turner 9 has also written about this. All of these share their struggles and successes in the academy.
  • The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) has several resources for women in academe such as:

CareerWISE Point

As solitary as the doctoral process can be, remember you are not alone, and more likely than not others have blazed the trail before you. Seek them out for support and information to successfully complete your program.

CareerWISE Tip

Engage in academic and socialization experiences such as being mentored through research projects and at conferences, taking coursework with faculty who have similar social identities, and participating in informal settings such as meeting for coffee. All of these can be critical to success in graduate school. 26


  1. Tokarczyk, M.M. & Fay, E.A. (Eds.) (1993). Working class women in the academy: Laborers in the knowledge factory. Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press.
  2. National Science Foundation (2009). Doctorate recipients from U.S. universities, Summary report 2007-2009. Washington, DC.
  3. Engle, J. & O'Brien, C. (2009) Demography is not destiny. Washington, D.C.: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunities in Higher Education. Retrieved August 19, 2010 from
  4. Kojaku, L. K. (2000). Financial aid profile of graduate students in science and engineering. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
  5. Gurin, P. (1999). Expert report of Patricia Gurin. Retrieved August 19, 2010 from
  6. Milem, J. F. (2003). The educational benefits of diversity: Evidence from multiple sectors. In M. Chang, D. Witt, J. Jones, & K. Hakuta (Eds.), Compelling interest: Examining the evidence on racial dynamics in higher education (pp. 126-169). Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
  7. Thayer, P. B. (2000). Retention of students from first generation and low income backgrounds. Opportunity Outlook, 5, 2–10.
  8. Pascarella, E. T., Pierson, C. T., Wolniak, G. C., & Terenzini, P. T. (2004). First-generation college students. Journal of Higher Education, 75, 249–284.
  9. Turner, C.S.V. (2002). Women of color in academe: Living with multiple marginality. The Journal of Higher Education. 73(1), 74-93.
  10. Choy, S. P. (2001). Students whose parents did not go to college: Postsecondary access, persistence, and attainment (NCES 2001-126). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
  11. Lohfink, M. M., & Paulsen, M. B. (2005). Comparing the determinants of persistence for first-generation and continuing-generation students. Journal of College Student Development, 46, 409–428.
  12. Spring, A. & Andreadis, C. (2009) What Does Student Success Look Like? Curricular Initiatives that Address Differing Views of Work Ethic and Positively Impact Student Engagement. Presentation at Network for Academic Renewal Conference. Retrieved September 26, 2010 from
  13. Delpit, L. (2006). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. (2nd Ed.) New York: New Press
  14. Gandara, P. (1994). Choosing higher education: Educationally ambitious Chicanos and the path to social mobility. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 2(8). Retrieved August 4, 2010 from
  15. Engle, J. & Tinto, V. (2008). Moving beyond access: College success for low-income, first-generation students. Washington, D.C.: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunities in Higher Education. Retrieved August 19, 2010 from
  16. Oldfield, K. (2007). Humble and hopeful: Welcoming first-generation poor and working class students to college. About Campus, 11(6), 2-12.
  17. Naumann, W., Bandalos, D. & Gutkin, T. (2003). Identifying variables that predict college success for first-generation college students. Journal of college admission. Fall (Issue 181).
  18. Antonio, A.L. (2001). Diversity and the influence of friendship groups in college. The Review of Higher Education, 25(1), 63-89.
  19. Kuh, G.D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J.H., Whitt, F.J., & Associates. (2005). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  20. Ishiyama, J. T., & Hopkins, V. M. (2003). Assessing the impact of a graduate school preparation program on first-generation, low-income college students at a public liberal arts university. Journal of College Student Retention, 4(4).
  21. Grimmett, M. A. S., Bliss, J. R., & Davis, D. M. (1998). Assessing federal TRIO McNair program participants’ expectation and satisfaction with project services: A preliminary study. Journal of Negro Education, 67(4), 404–415.
  22. Fort, D. (Ed.) (2005). A hand up: Women mentoring women in science. Alexandria, VA: Association for Women in Science.
  23. Rendón, L. (1992). From the barrio to the academy: Revelations of a Mexican American "Scholarship girl". New Directions for Community Colleges, 80, Winter. Retrieved August 19, 2010 from barrio_academy_girl.pdf
  24. Anzaldúa, G. (1999). Borderlands: The new Mestiza/La frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
  25. Saenz, V. B., Hurtado, S., Barrera, D., Wolf, D., & Yeung, F. (2007). First in my family: A profile of first-generation college students at four-year institutions since 1971. Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute.
  26. Turner, C.S.V. & Thompson, J.R. (1993). Socializing women doctoral students: Minority and majority experiences. The Review of Higher Education, 16(3), 355-370.

The Two-Body Problem
Challenges with being married to a fellow academician and finding faculty positions.

Becoming an Independent Voice as a Young Faculty Member
The process of establishing yourself in the same department as your spouse.

Words of Wisdom: Dr. Levitus
Urges students not to get wrapped into issues that do not directly involve them.

The Importance of Sharing Stories
The importance of hearing other people's stories.

Gender Bias in the US
The first realization that being a woman in science was outside the norm.

Words of Wisdom from Dr. Chattopadhyay
Advice for graduate students on how to maintain their confidence, courage, and dignity.

Being Comfortable as a Woman Among Men
Emphasizes positive peer relationships within her cohort.

Incidents of Prejudice Due to Married and Pregnant Status
Gender stereotypes faced in getting into graduate school and conducting research.


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