First Generation Students at Highly Selective Universities

If you missed the 2017 Teaching, Learning and Innovation Summer Institute (TLISI) or would like to revisit a TLISI topic, follow along with us as as we feature various sessions on the Prospect blog over the course of the 2017-18 academic year. We’ll be sharing posts on the following themes: Teaching in the Jesuit Tradition, Incorporating Difficult and Timely Topics, Innovative Teaching Practices, Technology Enhanced Learning, Evidence-based Teaching and Learning, Inclusive Pedagogies, and Cross-Institutional & Cross-Departmental Collaborations. Many of the sessions were recorded and are viewable on Digital Georgetown (accessible by anyone with a Georgetown NetID). You can also find a links to all of our recorded sessions on the TLISI Resources page. Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for our newsletter to stay updated on posts and more!

What defines a first generation college student? What do you wish professors knew about first generation students? If money wasn’t an object, what would you do to support first generation students?

These are three of the questions posed during the “First Generation Students at Highly Selective Universities” session, which took place during TLISI 2017. Moderated by Jesse O’Connell (COL’04) from the Lumina Foundation, the panelists included Dr. Rachel Gable, a recent graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education; Corey Stewart, Assistant Director of the Georgetown Scholarship Program, and Cristina Velsaquez (SFS’17), a Georgetown first generation student leader.    

Utilizing Gable’s research on the experiences of first generation college students at Georgetown and Harvard as a springboard for the discussion, panelists traced the changes of Georgetown’s first generation students and addressed what might be done to further assist this group of students in the future.

The panel opened by defining a first generation college student as a student who arrives at college with no parent graduate and thereby without their parents’ specific experiential understanding of what it is like to go to college. After establishing this definition, panelists defined a second category of students: the continuing generation student. Gable explained that continuing generation students display the same needs as first generation students. To illustrate this she gave the example of  a student whose parents went to college in a foreign country and consequently do not have similar skills for support.

Stewart outlined the ways the Georgetown Scholarship Program (GSP), a program for first generation Georgetown students, has developed in recent years, citing students at the forefront of “a major culture shift” on campus. He cited that in addition to having upwards of 650 students, GSP has expanded in terms of space as well—GSP students now have multiple group houses on campus which can serve as a way to extend their community. While GSP can help with common issues like how to register for classes, Stewart emphasized the importance of offering  a space where first generation students can have real-life conversations about their experience and find support from Georgetown.

Following this introduction to first generation students and the Georgetown community, the panel probed deeper to consider specific student experiences. In response to O’Connell’s question asking, “What do you wish professor know about first generation students?”, Velasquez offered a simple, yet compelling response: Be aware that struggling in the classroom is not always a direct result of not working hard enough or studying enough. Sometimes—with first generation or continuing generation students in particular—we must consider that students are behind and that they have missed key concepts along the way.

In considering how institutions like Georgetown can offer better support, the panel addressed what they would do to support first generation students if money was not an object. Gable emphasized the importance of creating a better-connected community and trying not only to change the culture within higher education, but also nationally. Importantly, she suggested devising a way to integrate first generation student families into the process past admissions. Stewart also indicated the value of creating a start-up fund for first year students to cover incidentals or move-in costs, and additionally suggested finding ways to improve food access on campus, so that students could more easily maintain a healthy lifestyle.

While these are long-term goals that seem to require improved financial assistance, the panel concluded with a discussion more applicable to the present. Gable cited a cognitive dissonance for some first generation students between their “Harvard or Georgetown hat” and “home hat,” noting the frequent disparities between the different aspects of first generation student life. She emphasized the possibility that these student identities are intersectional with the example of an Asian, undocumented, and first generation student. In light of the diversity illuminated in Gable’s example, her closing remarks serve as a reminder to be more cognizant of student identities and, moreover, continually find ways to reinforce the value of Georgetown’s value of cura personalis.