Kathy Sandin is president of California State University, East Bay.
It’s a standard speech at a ceremony that always gets a standing ovation: “If you’re the first in your family to graduate, please stand up.”
I spoke these words in May at 16 separate in-person commencement ceremonies at California State University, East Bay, where 64% of our students are first-generation students.
As a university president who is also a first-generation college graduate—and a graduate of two campuses in the California State University system—I am certainly grateful for the opportunities my first degree afforded me. At the same time, freshman season gives me an opportunity to reflect more deeply on how today’s first-generation experience may have changed compared to my college days, and how college leaders should respond to those changes.
Identity. Back in the 70s, we didn’t have a name. I actually didn’t hear the term “first generation college student” until around 2010. Imposter syndrome and other issues are real for all first-generation college students, as well as women and people of color. But today the identity of the first generation is recognized more openly. This is a positive change. The remaining sense of shame and secrecy of the past may have dissipated a bit for today’s first-generation students.
A better understanding of the special needs of first-generation students has led to many best practices for creating a sense of community and belonging among these learners. Active academic advising and peer coaching are two examples. Our university has also published a series of first-generation student guides called You Are Not Alone, featuring first-person accounts from other first-generation students, staff, and faculty.
Availability. In my time, public regional universities were really affordable. There was a middle class and families could support their students. Students could realistically work full-time during the summer to earn enough to pay for the next school year. This is not the case today. Adjusted for inflation tuition at four-year public colleges have grown approximately three times since the 1980s.
Today’s first-generation students come from a variety of BIPOC backgrounds. They are also most likely from low-income families than non-first generation students. Despite more financial aid options than in the 1970s, many of today’s first-generation college students still face the challenge of having to work multiple jobs and support families while simultaneously struggling with housing and food security, all factors that which may affect persistence and degree completion.
Basic needs support, food pantries, device loans, and free open educational resources can help the first-generation population.
Postgraduate. When I was a student, career services consisted of a physical job board and maybe a resume writing workshop. Not surprisingly, such services have proliferated along with the need for colleges and universities to report post-graduation earnings. A positive byproduct of this trend is the recognition that upon graduation, first-generation students will become first-generation professionals or first-generation graduate students. Many universities are expanding their career research and support programs knowing that first-generation graduates lack the broader professional relationships or social capital of their non-first-generation peers. Career support is essential for success after graduation.
Imposter syndrome. Some things haven’t changed. First generation students step out of their comfort zone every day. A litany of questions run through their heads: “Do I belong here? Can I really be successful? Don’t ask questions, you can stand out.” First-generation students are masters of code-switching as they move between school and family. For example, they may feel that they have to look smart at school but not too smart at home. Feeling guilty about family success may be heightened for students from cultures where family ties are emphasized. These deep emotional experiences persist over time – I am living proof – and will not be completely erased by the provision of first-generation enhanced student services. Empathizing with and understanding first-generation experiences will continue to be an important part of student success.
Economic mobility. It has been and remains undisputed: earning a bachelor’s degree is the key to economic mobility and stability for individuals, families, and communities. Being the first to take this step is still a huge achievement even more so today than during my day – an achievement that is a public good.
Our knowledge-based economy requires an educated workforce. More importantly, the events of the past two years have underscored the need for equal opportunity for meaningful economic and social participation beyond the most privileged members of our society. Being serious and intentional about supporting first-generation students can advance both the goals of economic mobility and social justice.