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Voices of the Global Community


Yesenia Lares-Martinez, Texas State University
Rafael R. Almanzar, Texas State University

First-generation college students (FGCS) are generally defined as the first in their families to pursue a four-year higher education degree in the United States (Santa-Ramirez et al., 2022). One-third of college students in the United States identify as first-generation (Ives & Castillo-Montoya, 2020). Although higher education is experiencing an increase in the number of FGCS on its campuses, these students continue to lag in degree completion compared to continuing-generation students (NASPA, n.d.; Troy et al., 2023).  
The COVID-19 pandemic was unprecedented across the world and within higher education. The COVID-19 pandemic further amplified the challenges FGCS experience. Soria et al. (2020) found that FGCS did not adapt well to online learning compared to continuing-generation students. Although, in most cases, higher education institutions have transitioned back to in-person learning and are operating as they were before COVID-19, the ramifications of COVID-19 continue to negatively impact FGCS when it comes to their transition into college, which can impede college persistence, retention, and degree completion.  
This article aims to (1) explain Schlossberg’s Transition Theory in the context of FGCS; (2) discuss the challenges FGCS face and how the COVID-19 pandemic amplified those challenges; and (3) utilizing Schlossberg's Transition Theory, provide practical implications for advisors to support FGCS.     

Brief Overview of Schlossberg’s Transition Theory (1984)  

Advisors can support and combat many FGCS’ challenges by utilizing Schlossberg’s Transition Theory as a theoretical framework in their practices and initiatives. Schlossberg's Transition Theory examines what constitutes a transition, different forms of transition, the transition process, and the factors that influence transitions (Patton et al., 2016). Transition is defined as “any event or non-event resulting in changed relationships, routines, assumptions, and roles” (Goodman et al., 2006, p. 33). Conceptualizing Schlossberg’s Transition Theory with FGCS in mind will provide advisors with an understanding necessary to work with FGCS in a way that empowers and helps frame their transition to higher education. Schlossberg’s Transition Theory indicates the following: 
•    The meaning created of the transition for the individual is based on the event's type, context, and impact.   
•    Dealing with a transition is a process that extends over time as individuals “move in,” “move through,” and “move out.” Both time and growth vary with the person and the transition.   
•    An individual's ability to overcome the transition depends on the strengths and resources in these four areas (4 S’s of Transition): Situation, Self, Support, and Strategies (Goodman et al., 2006).  
Conceptualizing Schlossberg’s Transition Theory  
Understanding Schlossberg’s Transition Theory is important for conceptualizing how FGCS experience higher education. Schlossberg et al. (1995) stated the resources in the four S's (Situation, Self, Support, and Strategies) might explain why different individuals react differently to the same type of transition and why the same person reacts differently at various times. Having this understanding is vital for advisors who may be unfamiliar with the challenges experienced by FGCS or how FCGS lived experiences are different compared to continuing-generation students. 

Advisors are in a unique position where they can help reinforce support and strategies for FGCS. FGCS may experience other sources of stress, such as effects during the height of COVID-19, that could impact their situation. Advisors can be a source of support by being a part of their community away from home and providing affirmation, aid, and honest feedback. Advisors play a critical role in FGCS’ strategies for a successful transition by helping modify or manage the stress they feel.  

FGCS' Challenges
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the many complex problems it introduced, many FGCS were still struggling to make a smooth college transition due to disproportionate academic and social challenges compared to their continuing-generation peers. This difficult adjustment is magnified when their first-generation status intersects with other marginalized identities, such as race, socioeconomic status, gender, and age (Ward et al., 2012). Among the challenges FGCS face, barriers stem from their lack of capital and not having the personal networks to ask for guidance (Pascarella et al., 2004). FGCS’ access to social capital decreases as they navigate away from previous connections in high school and their communities. Additional challenges preventing academic readiness include hidden curriculums, college terminologies, and FGCS schooling backgrounds. Watts et al. (2023) found academic challenges resulted from a lack of knowledge, preparation, clarity of expectations, and communication issues with professors. Being a FGCS may also lead to conflicting identities navigating college life and life at home with family, potentially straining relationships with family members (Burns, 2013).   
Practical Implications for Advisors to Support FGCS  

First, it is important to note that the definition of first-generation is defined differently across institutions and has many nuances. Advisors must be mindful of how these implications can be applied to their practice and work with FGCS. Next, utilizing Schlossberg’s Transition Theory below are recommended actions for advisors to support FGCS and their transition into college.    
Employ an asset-based mindset and approach. FGCS are often defined and viewed in a deficit-based mindset. Although these students may not have the same starting point as continuing-generation students because they lack the social, cultural, and institutional capital, advisors must see the strengths and lived experiences FGCS brings into their institution. When advisors do not see the strengths, values, and diverse experiences FGCS bring, it only perpetuates the deficit mindset through which FGCS are often viewed. Also, FGCS are not a monolithic group—not all FGCS come from the same racial or ethnic backgrounds, and advisors must not assume that all FGCS are the same or have the same experiences. Not all FGCS will have a difficult transition into college. 
Educate yourself to enhance your work and practice on FGCS. As previously mentioned, FGCS are not a monolithic group, and advisors must enhance their knowledge of FGCS to better serve and support them. If advisors are limited in the amount of professional development funds or do not have the full support of leadership to advance their education on FGCS, there are a myriad of cost-effective or free resources available to stay abreast on the challenges and successes of FGCS. If advisors are not engaging in this work, they will only hinder their work with FGCS which can negatively impact retention, persistence, and degree completion.  
Foster a sense of belonging. To support FGCS as they transition into college, advisors must work on intentionally engaging FGCS to facilitate a sense of belonging. When thinking about Schlossberg’s Transition Theory, FGCS enter a world that no one else in their family has entered, which may cause a myriad of feelings such as anxiety, fear, and alienation. These feelings can be further exacerbated if there is no visibility of other FGCS and initiatives to build a sense of belonging. Advisors must work on developing and implementing initiatives that foster a sense of belonging. For instance, advisors can organize a first-gen welcome event the week before the start of the fall semester where FGCS can meet other FGCS as well as faculty and staff who are first-gen. First-gen faculty and staff can share their first-gen stories and provide encouragement to kick start the semester. Hopkins et al. (2021) pointed out that finding community or feeling a sense of belonging was important for FGCS persistence.  
Increase the visibility of FGCS. Part of fostering a sense of belonging for FGCS is also increasing the visibility of this group. Since being first-generation is an invisible identity, advisors only know who their FGCS are if they ask or if their institution provides data with an attribute that identifies FGCS. Increasing the visibility of FGCS will increase their pride, normalize their transition and experiences, and provide many opportunities, such as mentorship with first-gen faculty and staff. The first week of November is National First Gen Celebration Week, and this is a prime opportunity for advisors and institutions to increase the visibility of FGCS and celebrate their work. Furthermore, to increase the visibility of FGCS on your campus, advisors and institution leaders can work towards the designation of being a First Gen Forward institution by NASPA’s Center for First Gen Student Success. This distinction recognizes institutions that provide intentional support and guidance to FGCS from their transition into college through degree completion and post-secondary success.  
Develop co-curricular activities for first-gen student success. Advisors must work on supporting FGCS to decode the hidden curriculum in higher education to be successful (Minicozzi & Roda, 2020). For instance, to help FGCS navigate college, advisors can develop a checklist of milestones that FGCS must complete each year for degree completion. This checklist can be framed under social, career, and academic milestones. For instance, year one under academic milestones can be meeting an academic advisor to discuss course planning; year two under career milestones can be visiting with a career advisor to work on career exploration or applying for internships. Other co-curricular activities on this checklist can include introducing FGCS to undergraduate research opportunities, student organizations, and on-campus jobs.  


The implications above are not an exhaustive list; however, it is a starting point for supporting FGCS’ transition into higher education with Schlossberg’s Transition Theory as the theoretical framework. Advisors are often the first agents of higher education that FGCS meets in college, which puts advisors in a unique and vital position to support their transition into college and advance first-generation student success. 

Burns, A. (2013). “Who do you think you are?” A multidimensional analysis of the impact of disparities in higher educational attainment within families of first-generation college graduates (Accession Order No. 3553017) [Doctoral dissertation, City University of New York]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses. 
Goodman, J., Schlossberg, N. K., & Anderson, M. L. (2006). Counseling adults in transition (3rd ed.). Springer.   
Ives, J., & Castillo-Montoya, M. (2020). First-generation college students as academic learners: A systematic review. Review of Educational Research, 90(2), 139–178. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654319899707 
Hopkins, S., Workman, J. L., & Truby, W. (2021). The out-of-classroom engagement experiences of first-generation college students that impact persistence. Georgia Journal of College Student Affairs, 37(1), 35–58. https://doi.org/10.20429/gcpa.2021.370103   
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Soria, K. M., Horgos, B., Chirikov, I., & Jones-White, D. (2020). First-generation students’ experiences during the covid-19 pandemic. https://hdl.handle.net/11299/214934 
Troy, C., Jackson, K., Pearce, B., & Rowe, D. (2023). Laying the foundation for creating first-generation student programming. Developing and implementing promising practices and programs for first-generation college students (pp. 1–9). Routledge.  
Ward, L., Siegel, M. J., & Davenport, Z. (2012). First-generation college students: Understanding and improving the experience from recruitment to commencement. John Wiley & Sons.  
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Posted in: 2023 June 46:2


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