Book by: Rashne R. Jehangir, Michael J. Stebleton, and Veronica Deenanath
Review by: Shannon Johnson
Come Back to Manoa Program
University of Hawaii at Manoa


The number of first-generation (FG) students entering college has significantly increased in recent years, growing to approximately one in three. FG students are likely to be immigrants, students of color, low-income, nonnative English speakers, and less prepared for college-level coursework. At the four-year and six-year points, their graduation rates are about 15% lower than students whose parents went to college, indicating a retention problem. While past research regarding FG students examined limiting factors on these students’ academic success, this qualitative study focused on student strengths that allowed them to succeed.

Taking into account the multiple identities of FG students, this study used a developmental ecology theory as its framework. Focus groups were conducted with upper-division students attending one large, predominantly white, research university. The study explored their perceived obstacles as well as types of support that allowed them to continue progressing toward degree. Six themes emerged in the study, reflecting a developmental progression through time: visible/invisible, different worlds, perpetual border crosser, burden of privilege, establishing voice, and call for genuine commitment. Twelve recommendations were presented, including many direct and indirect implications for academic advisors.  The students’ own words provided a powerful voice to their experiences.

Upon entering college, first-generation students felt visible because they spoke or dressed differently, yet these students also felt invisible due to the limited support available addressing their particular needs. Academic advisors can help create a sense of belonging within their own office space, encourage students to explore centers and organizations related to their identities, and advocate for the campus to offer or enhance such spaces and opportunities. Differences between their home and school worlds quickly became evident as FG students struggled to adjust to discrepant expectations. Engaging family members from beginning to end of the academic process is critical in helping set realistic expectations. Faculty and staff can also look for ways to partner with communities from which FG students come, bridging the divide between the institution and students’ home communities.

The FG students in this study developed skills to help them navigate the challenges, becoming perpetual border crossers and negotiating the burden of their privilege. Developing peer mentoring/advising programs allows them to share their experiences on navigating the system. Students began recognizing how certain services supported them and provided the safe space to gain confidence and skills. As they established their voices, study participants started speaking up at the threat of these services being reduced or eliminated, questioning the university’s genuine commitment to their success. Advisors can encourage the development of voice in students, possibly even working together to create educational opportunities for faculty and staff on best practices of interacting with and supporting FG students, helping to establish meaningful connections across campus. Finally, having dedicated advisors and staff to work specifically with FG students who understand their needs was recommended.

While not a generalizable study, the authors were able to suggest ways that academic and student services can more cohesively support low-income, first-generation students by understanding how these students faced the many obstacles encountered. Academic advisors can advocate on behalf of FG students at many levels, encouraging the exploration of how campus climate issues affect them, examining the intersection of their identities, and promoting the implementation and funding of supporting programs. This study offers insight as to how institutions can better support first-generation students and their persistence to degree.

An Exploration of Intersecting Identities of First-Generation, Low-Income Students (2015). Book by Rashne R. Jehangir, Michael J. Stebleton, and Veronica Deenanath. Review by Shannon Johnson. Columbia, SC: National Resource Center.  65 pp., $0.00, (Paperback), ISBN 978-1-889271-97-2

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