New book examines the experiences of first in family students on four continents

Dr Amani Bell (right) presents a book she co-edited about first in family students at university to WUN Development Manager for the University of Bristol, Dr Susan Jim, who was also the first person in her family to study at university.

A unique book that captures the diverse experiences of first generation higher education students and explores ways universities might better serve them was launched on May 24 at the WUN AGM. Co-edited by Dr Amani Bell (Sydney University at the time the book was written) and Associate Professor Lorri J. Santamaría (Auckland), it represents four years of collaborative work inspired by the WUN-funded project, Widening Participation: ‘First in the Family’ Students Succeeding in Universities. In this Q&A Dr Bell highlights why WUN’s support was pivotal to the project. 

The book you co-edited with Lorri J. Santamaría (Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at The University of Auckland, New Zealand) has been launched today. How does it feel?

It feels fantastic! The book is the culmination of the WUN project Widening Participation: ‘First in the Family’ Students Succeeding in Universities, which was led by Dr ’Ema Wolfgramm-Foliaki and Associate Professor Lorri Santamaria, both at the University of Auckland. We had our first meeting back in March 2014, and it has been a long process of planning, talking, thinking, finding collaborators, carrying out research, and finally writing the book.

The book examines data on first generation student experiences at seven institutions in six countries across four continents. How did the WUN network assist with the project?

WUN provided the funding that enabled the initial project team to meet and start the project. The team included scholars from Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Canada. We gave two conference presentations, wrote a chapter about our experiences of working together (Bell et al 2016), and held a symposium and writing retreat. When we started writing the book, we realised it was important to include contributors from the USA and the UK, as they are countries with very large numbers of students in higher education, and long histories of widening participation. So we ended up with data on first generation student experiences at seven institutions in six countries, which is a wide net!

The introduction to the book is titled: ‘Why Focus on First Generation Students?’ So, yes, why? In a few sentences: what’s so important here?

Over the past few decades, universities worldwide have opened their doors to students whose parents and grandparents were historically excluded from societal participation and higher education for reasons associated with racial, ethnic, socio-economic and/ or linguistic diversity. Many students benefitting from such efforts to widen participation are from low socio-economic backgrounds or first in their family or both, to attend university, otherwise known as first generation students.  The numbers of first generation students entering higher education have been growing rapidly, with the most recently available OECD figures showing that a mean average of 22 per cent of young adults in OECD countries have attained tertiary education, even though their parents had not. First generation students who attain their degrees access a range of beneficial outcomes. Yet despite increased numbers accessing higher education, there is also evidence of increasing societal inequalities. Further, there are few international studies on first generation students, and much remains to be done to transform the academy to better serve these students. 

Can you talk more about how the book explores ‘culturally responsive and sustaining research methodologies in gathering evidence about first in family success’?

Inspired by the work of Southern, Indigenous and post-colonial scholars, and our own contexts, research and experiences, we believe that these methodologies can help expose what Penny Jane Burke calls the ‘hegemonic discourses of widening participation’ (2012: 3). As the methodologies all focus around story telling and, in some cases, images, they are accessible to participants with varying levels of literacy. The methodologies allow for some choice and creativity, and attend to creating a relational space in which the stories can unfold. 

Why was how you wrote the book so important in this project?

We brought our own culturally rich and diverse perspectives to the work. We represent a range of cultural and linguistic experiences and backgrounds, including first generation, Indigenous and so on. Some of the chapters have been written in partnership with research assistants who are also first generation students, as we wanted to embody the theories and methodologies we were using in our research. Being students themselves, these research assistants were much closer to the experiences of the students whose stories were being gathered. The research assistants were able to relate well with the students, and offer invaluable perspectives during data analysis. In return (reciprocity being a key feature of many Indigenous methodologies), the research assistants were mentored so that they gained experience in research techniques, writing and publishing processes, and in giving conference presentations – thus helping a new generation of scholars on their journeys.

The Bloomsbury book promotion says: ‘The book is replete with diverse student voices, and compelling implications for practice and future research.’ What are a few implications for future research?

The topic of first generation students in higher education is ripe for further exploration. Some suggestions include:

• Longitudinal studies.

• What teachers and staff do: we focussed here on students’ experiences, and so it would be useful to know more about teachers’ backgrounds, experiences and perceptions of first generation and diverse students. See Burke, Crozier & Misiaszek (2017) for interesting perspectives of teachers on the complexities of teaching diverse classes.

• Critical discourse analysis on how first generation students are written and spoken about.

• More about the history of widening participation in higher education. The Australian context is covered by Hannah Forsyth (2014); in depth historical perspectives from other countries would be welcome.

• Autoethnographic studies. Autoethnography is an ‘autobiographical genre of writing and research’ that focusses both on ‘social and cultural aspects of personal experience’ as well as the ‘vulnerable self’ (Ellis, 1999: 673).

• Different ways of being ‘first’: first in immediate family, the village, the community, first to get a bachelors degree, first to get a postgraduate degree, first to get a doctorate, first to go to a prestigious university, first woman in the family to go to university, and so on.

• First generation graduate students, following the work of Lunceford (2011), Gardner & Holley (2011), and others.

• Long term health effects, particularly as some scholars have noted the ‘negative health effects of relentless striving’ particularly for Black people from disadvantaged backgrounds (Hamblin 2017).

• First generation professionals; does imposter syndrome persist once first generation students enter their professions?

• Other forms of representing the experiences of first generation students, such as creative non-fiction, memoir and drama.

• Further theorisation.

The concluding chapter is titled ‘Beyond Listening to First Generation Students’. So, yes, beyond listening, what needs to happen next?

Because there are complicated reasons why first generation students may struggle to access and succeed in higher education, ‘sophisticated remedies’ (Ward et al. 2012: 65) are needed. We don’t suggest that our recommendations (below) are easy or simple to implement, particularly as universities can be slow to change. Nor can we assume that there is a standard ‘model’ that will work across countries. And yet some or all of these changes are necessary if we are to address the needs of first generation students. That said, we like the focus of Chapter 4 on ‘narrow and deep’ strategies, so that, to paraphrase, each university can focus on selected areas, goals and actions, and avoid attempting too much.

 

What are your ten recommendations to universities?

Our focus in this book is on culturally responsive and sustaining methodologies, but clearly there is a need for culturally responsive and sustaining teaching (for example, Gay 2013) and we can see clear parallels between culturally responsive and sustaining methodologies and culturally responsive teaching. Our ten recommendations are as follows (and are detailed in Chapter 9 of the book):

1. Co-inquire and co-create with first generation students.

2. Highlight the experiences of first generation students and staff.

3. Engage with first generation students’ families and communities.

4. Support all students and staff to develop skills around intercultural communication and social justice.

5. Foster supportive environments for the development of friendships and peer support.

6. Develop programs for first generation students.

7. Recognise the challenging the conditions in which academics work.

8. Enact curriculum change that reflects the cultural strengths of first generation students.

9. Initiate and support large scale, multi-institution initiatives.  

10. Think beyond.

 
Associate Professor Amani Bell is Iru Vice-chancellors’ Fellow, in the office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor and Vice-president (academic) at the University of Sydney. Widening Participation: ‘First in the Family’ Students Succeeding in Universities: Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Methodologies is published by Bloomsbury.