Easing The Transition: 3 Pieces of Advice for Supporting First-Generation or Underrepresented Students on Your Campus - Higher Education
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Easing The Transition: 3 Pieces of Advice for Supporting First-Generation or Underrepresented Students on Your Campus

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The beginning of the academic semester is a time of transition. Thousands of students are entering college or graduate school for the first time and those who are the first in their family to do so may not know what to expect. While the next couple of years will undoubtedly be challenging for them, here are some ways you (as a peer, as an administrator, or as a professor) can help in cultivating a smooth, positive transition.

Don’t make assumptions about a student’s ability based on their previous affiliations.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a better understanding of a student’s academic background by getting to know them and their experiences? Too often, a student’s previous institutional affiliation can effect the way their work ethic or ability to succeed is perceived by others. Given that I came from the Bronx, (although I went to a private high school) the majority of students came from predominantly low-income households and the high school did not offer many college preparatory classes. As a first-semester freshman at Cornell University, my experiences with group projects were anxiety-inducing. Many of my peers second-guessed my work. I also had an experience where I handed in an assignment knowing it wasn’t my best work because I had trouble understanding concepts, yet I received no feedback and earned a good grade from my TA. When I asked about it, I was told that I missed the point of the assignment, but it was evidence that I tried hard. While that may have been nice for my grade, it left me feeling like there were low expectations for my work.

Andrew Martinez

In graduate school, I was hesitant to reveal that I went to an Ivy League school as an undergraduate, which often lead to assumptions that I’m pretentious. Given that I study higher education, often times we reflect on our experiences in college or are instructed to talk about certain aspects of our undergraduate experiences in relation to the topic we are covering in class. Despite my experiences with the “impostor syndrome” during graduate school, my peers would make comments about how easy this must be for me. My struggles were often dismissed.

We do not always want to be the “expert” when it comes to our different identities.

Whether it is during a class discussion on inequality or an ice-breaker activity to learn more about each other, please do not expect us to always provide the “insert-identity-group” perspective. The assumption that underrepresented minority groups focus on their race or ethnicity in their studies can be limiting. While I do intend to focus my research on Latinx students in higher education, it is because of the history I was denied in my K-12 education. Furthermore, what I learned in college in most courses were constructed in a glorified, White or Eurocentric way. While my experiences may help others understand an issue, the expectation for me to always have to be the one to explain this is unfair. Instructors or facilitators should be proactive to do the work themselves to understand the experiences of different identity groups, or at least create an environment where individuals would like to share and educate others voluntarily — not because they were called out for being the only one in the class and/or group.

We may be underrepresented, but do not focus on us as being “at-risk.”

While it is exciting to see intentional, increased support for first-generation and/or other underrepresented groups on campus, it is important to not take a deficit-based approach in talking about or supporting this group. Despite the amount of resources developed to support the ever increasing diverse student populations entering higher education, the narrative often focuses on student’s being “at-risk” or “needy.” While research may demonstrate that these groups are less likely to succeed, we should be focusing on how they succeed despite the challenges and obstacles they encounter throughout college and graduate school. It is important that the press releases touting the increasing diversity of an institution does so in a way that empowers and encourages that group. Interview students who are succeeding and share what support services helped them succeed. Talk about resources that all students use. There are plenty of ways to talk about first-generation, underrepresented students in college without having to label them as “at-risk.”

These are just three of the many ways you can help create a positive transitional experiences for entering students. If there are student organizations or resource centers on your campus that support these populations, you may find it helpful to get to know the students who frequent those spaces and see what they think can help. Sometimes the “literature” is just not enough, especially when the success stories are overshadowed by the challenges and barriers students encounter.

Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. His column appears in Diverse every other week. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle.

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