Alicia A. Finney is a Ph.D. student in the Cellular, Molecular and Biomedical Sciences Program at the University of Vermont.
In the following blog post, Finney writes about her experiences as a first-generation student.
“The guidance and support of mentors is critical to first-generation student success, as these students may otherwise struggle to navigate the academic landscape and achieve their full potential.”
The decision to pursue a college degree is, for many, less of a decision and more of an expectation. An implication exists in modern American culture which suggests that success of any meaningful kind is unachievable without passing through the gauntlet of academia. The job market largely agrees, with one research group reporting that 62% of all U.S.-based employers require candidates with four-year degrees. Students who are the first in their families to earn a degree make up one-third of all U.S. college students, yet typically these first-generation students are hampered by a lack of familiarity or connections within the academic world, compared to their peers who come from more educated backgrounds. It is for this reason that the guidance and support of mentors is critical to first-generation student success, as these students may otherwise struggle to navigate the academic landscape and achieve their full potential.
The “Hidden Curricula”
The experience of a first-generation college graduate is fraught with “hidden curricula,” the term given to the cultural expectations and unspoken norms of academic spaces. For a student in the sciences, it is not enough to simply maintain strong grades to ensure future opportunities such as graduate school or job offers after graduation. In many fields, including my own field of biomedical research, it is expected that one will have conducted undergraduate research and undergone laboratory training, completed internships, presented original work at conferences, joined honor societies, and possibly even had teaching experience prior to the end of a bachelor’s degree program. These additional experiences frequently have a significant financial component that may further restrict access to those without sufficient support.
Navigating the Labyrinth of Academic Expectations
Being a first-generation student, I can assure you that understanding of these “hidden curricula” challenges is not as widespread as it might seem to those who have been exposed to academia for longer periods of time. For example, it wasn’t until I stumbled across a peer who shared with me that I should be attempting to find a faculty member to conduct research with as an undergraduate student, that I even realized this was an option I should explore. I often wonder what my path might have been if not for that, and other chance conversations. Ultimately, I was fortunate to find several supportive faculty mentors to help guide my journey, but what of others from similar backgrounds and naivety with academic culture?
To encourage and ensure peer equity and success, we must remove the burden on students to navigate through this pervasive academia labyrinth of expectations on their own. The failure to adequately support students often reduces the diversity of those who can advance and enjoy future opportunities after graduation.
The Need for Socioeconomic and Educational Diversity
Upon completing my undergraduate program, I became a faculty member in a preparatory school, and it was immediately apparent that I was one of a very small population of first-generation academics in a culture of “Princeton families” and legacy admissions. The unfortunate reality is that while many academic institutions are making strides in recruiting faculty of diverse race, gender identity, and ethnicity, there remains a failure to adequately recruit faculty of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and institutional experience. Such insular hiring practices are detrimental to not only the students, who would see themselves represented in these positions, but also to the institution by limiting the perspectives present within their teaching and research.
Studies have shown that as many as one in eight faculty members who received their doctoral training in the United States come from just five academic institutions. Another study reports that over half of surveyed tenure-track faculty have at least one parent with a master’s degree or Ph.D. This lack of socioeconomic and educational diversity further suggests that the path to becoming a professor is still largely inaccessible to most of the population.
We Can do Better
To remedy the inequities built over generations of explicit and implicit exclusion in higher education, a different strategy and more proactive approach is needed. The admission that first-generation students require support in the form of active mentorship is paramount. Many of us don’t know what we don’t know, and accessible, direct guidance on the expectations of navigating college beyond the classroom is a must. Ideally, such conversations would be present at all levels of education, including in preparation for the admissions process.
We cannot, as participants in higher education, accept that some students won’t progress simply as a function of not being present during conversations where key information is conveyed. We can do better, and I hope that we will.