Kelci Kosin, Ball State University
I remember sitting in the Office of Financial Aid each semester as an undergraduate student, facing financial decisions I had no guidance in making, and thinking “I shouldn’t be here.” Needless to say, these trips to the Office of Financial Aid always brought tears. I came from a single-parent, low-income situation with a perceived low chance of attaining my ambitious academic and personal goals of being an opera singer. I was the poster child for what it means to be a first-generation student. But, I made it. I asked questions, I struggled, I kept going, and three degrees later here I am. For years, I was embarrassed about my story and my struggles. Now, however, I believe that this is the story other first-generation students need to hear: that they are not alone.
In universities across the United States, academic advisors are witnessing a growing population of students that identify as first generation. Most likely from low-income, single-parent families, first-generation students might come to college with little to no information regarding what it means to pursue a degree in higher education or how to seek necessary resources in times of need. These students need validation that they belong in a university setting and that their degree is attainable. This support is especially crucial during moments in which the students are challenged academically and/or financially.
Due to these challenges, it is not surprising that only 11% of first-generation students earn a degree within six years of beginning a college degree (Bennett et al., 2018). I am proud to share that I am a part of this statistic. If you, the reader, are also a part of this community, I would like to say: “We did it!” Now, these stories should be shared with students. Even if someone does not identify as being a first-generation graduate, I believe that they also have a story to share and the ability to empower first-generation students. By sharing personal stories in advising, academic advisors can help to prevent these students from falling through the cracks or giving up.
I believe that advisors should not shy away from sharing the challenges they encountered in college. Students are always surprised and relieved to hear my personal and academic struggles. For example, I have had conversations with students about one of the many issues that first-generation college students face: food insecurity. A 2016 study on food insecurities amongst college students analyzed the responses of over 3,800 students from both community colleges and four-year institutions in twelve states. The study revealed that food insecurities were most prevalent among students that identified as being first-generation students; these students were unable to purchase course materials/textbooks, were more inclined to skip classes or withdraw from courses, and were more likely to drop out of school (Dedman, 2017). While pursuing my degrees, I maintained a full academic load while balancing full-time employment to support myself and, sometimes, my family. When I relocated to begin my graduate studies, I had little to no resources and found myself struggling greatly. At my worst, I only had enough money to purchase a large bag of pretzels and a box of granola bars in the hope that I could get by until financial aid reimbursements were distributed.
Students are always surprised by my willingness to share this particular challenging time in my life. It is a slightly painful memory of my journey, but that was the final straw that motivated me to seek help. Had I not asked, I might have given up. When I share this story, I urge students to seek help even when they aren’t sure who to turn to or what resources are available. If your student needs to hear an advisor’s struggle to feel safe enough to voice their struggle, advisors might be able to prevent students from making the decision to leave school and, instead, lead them to available campus resources.
I am so proud of first-generation students, past and present. I take joy in sharing a story from my graduation ceremony this past summer that reminds me of the pride that comes along with first-generation success. I finished my Doctor of Arts degree, and as I was preparing for the ceremony, my long-time academic mentor and teacher said (with a smile full of pride and confidence), “You are going to take this the wrong way, but you shouldn’t be here.” I knew exactly what he meant by this. I beat the odds. I did it. Statistics would say I shouldn’t be here, but I was and I am. I want this for each of the first-generation students I advise.
I encourage advisors to share their stories—even the challenges, even the failures. If advisors are not sure how to share, or how it might be appropriate in the role of academic advisor, I suggest trying the Intrusive Advising Model. This advising model involves intentional contact with students with the goal of developing a caring and beneficial relationship that leads to increased academic motivation and persistence (Varney, 2007). Here are some things to consider when seeking to empower first-generation students:
- Connect students with financial literacy programs.
- Connect and share campus organizations with students to build a family/community.
- Check in and let students know that they are valued. Discuss and map out their dreams for the future.
- Remind students that they belong in a university setting. Positive affirmation is a must. Cheer them on as they pursue the seemingly impossible.
- Remember to maintain boundaries with students, show genuine care, openness and honesty, but maintain professionalism at all times (Thomas & Minton, 2004).
Whether one is a first-generation student/graduate or not, all advisors have the power to lead first-generation students to academic success. These students need an advocate. They need someone to tell them that they belong and that they can achieve their goals with persistence and resilience. I invite all advisors to share their stories, be honest, and be proud of where they started and where they are today.
School of Music
Ball State University
Bennett, C., Cataldi, E., & Chen, X. (2018, February) First-generation students college access, persistence, and postbachelor’s outcomes (Stats in Brief, NCES 2018-421). U.S. Department of Education. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018421.pdf
Dedman, B. (2017, January/February). Facts & figures–food and housing insecurities disproportionately hurt black, first-generation, and community college students. AAC&U News. https://www.aacu.org/aacu-news/newsletter/facts-figures/jan-feb2017
Thomas, C. & Minton, J. (2004). Intrusive advisement: A model for success at John A. Logan College. Office of Community College Research and Leadership, 15(2), 10–12. https://occrl.illinois.edu/docs/librariesprovider4/news/update/spring-2004.pdf?sfvrsn=6ff8b389_10
Varney, J. (2007, September). Intrusive advising. Academic Advising Today, 30(3). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Intrusive-Advising.aspx
Cite this article using APA style as: Kosin, K. (2020, June). Empowering first-generation student through personal experience and instrusive advising. Academic Advising Today, 43(2). [insert url here]