Supporting First-Generation Students in Higher Education: A justice project [Guest Blog)

Understanding First-Generation Students and Career Readiness in Higher Education

When I moved to the United States to pursue my undergraduate studies at a liberal arts college in Connecticut, I left knowing that I am black, a man and poor. I was aware of these overlapping identities because they impact my place in the world, exposing me to various forms of vulnerability and privilege. Being black in South Africa and the United States means that when I move through certain spaces—white dominated spaces—I become overly conscious about my blackness and what it means for those whom I am around. To be black in the world means negotiating space and thriving through structural barriers. Though being a black man as opposed to black women affords me visibility and power when I move through certain places that have been traditionally bespoke for men. It means that when I am in the classroom, my classmates will laud my intelligence when I speak on certain issues even though a black woman might have said the same things; yet she will be called something different: angry, emotional— while I am called passionate and driven (as though those qualities are mutually exclusive).

When I arrived on campus, at Trinity College in Connecticut, I became aware of another identity that meant I would navigate the world differently; I became aware of my first-generation identity.



The Status of First-Generation Students in Higher Education

Scholarly material about the first-generation identity underscores that one comes from a family where they are first in their kin to attend an institution of higher education. Some critical higher educational practitioners caution around the term because it assumes that attending a higher education institution, like a university program, translates to completing the program. Given this controversy, it would be amiss to simply define this term without acknowledging that it emanates from the awareness that students who are first in their families encounter institutional barriers that inhibit their success as opposed to ‘legacy’ students—those who come from backgrounds where parents might have attended and completed tertiary studies.

Though I can articulate this identity with relative authority because I spend my time as a first-generation leader on my campus— supporting and proposing initiatives that improve the status of first-generation students—this identity presents its own set of complex experiences. When I accepted my admission offer from Trinity College, I was adamant that I will be studying Political Science, Human Rights Studies and English. It was when I received my book-list and attended my first class, Introduction to International Relations, that I decided to rethink my interest in Political Science. Honestly, the costs associated with the course meant that I would be unable to purchase toiletries for the semester— it was a troubling realization, but a needed awakening about my reality. Though I have a scholarship, there are some costs that first-generation students incur that financial aid officers have not considered.

When I took on a role as a Fellow for the First-Generation Students initiative, it was noted that first-generation students at Trinity College, like myself, are most likely to change their majors due to cost related issues. Though Trinity College was established one-hundred-and-ninety-six years ago, it was until the new administration came into place that tailored support and programming for first-generation students became an institutional priority. In most institutions of higher learning, first-generation students—in race, color, gender and socio-economic status—are a population of students in need of institutional support because the lack of that support affects their long-term prospects.



Tailored Programming as Means to Success and Justice

Inadequate institutional support for first-generation students affects how students—when they leave those institutions—find their way in world. It was after seeking support from my academic advisors that I realized that Political Science did not energize me as much as Human Rights Studies and Creative Writing in English did. I am aware that not everyone has the same experience that I have, that not everyone has access to a supportive network to offer them sound counseling about their academic interests. In the case of most first-generation students, pursuing a degree program that they have little interest in may result in pursuing a career field where— though the graduate may have evident knowledge and skills— they would rather pursue something else but they cannot due to the current state of youth unemployment, globally. Given this reality, first-generation students walk into the job market trying to survive instead doing something that energizes them. Who need a workforce like that?

When institutions admit students, who are first in their families to pursue a higher education qualification, the question of institutional support apparatus for those students needs to be considered. Consider the case of career readiness support offered by most institutions. Firstly, do those career readiness guides have sufficient information for first-generation students? For most first-generation students, career readiness information helps in them thinking about the future in a way that helps to cope with their immediate realities. Are there seminars, workshops and information sessions that are targeted for first-generation students? The way career readiness programming has been done for the longest time has been biased towards students who already have access to resources that supplement what is already offered by their institutions. For first-generation students, institutions where they are admitted are often the only and primary resource that they have. As a Fellow at the Center for Career Development and Student Success at Trinity College, my advocacy and support often considers how best institutional resources can be tailored for first-generation students.

Higher Education in South Africa and Supporting First-Generation Students

The role of higher education, primarily, should ensure that students are adequately prepared to succeed in the world. To have been admitted in an institution where strides are made pertaining the status of first-generation students, helps to ensure that students hold administrators to their word and own up their way to success. North American institutions, at varying levels, are moving the needle forward with tailoring support for first-generation students. Though I am not admitted into a South African university, I have lived all my life in this country and have read widely on higher education to know that first-generation students populate most higher education institutions and receive inadequate support. When #FeesMustFall led a conversation about restructuring of South African higher education, another question I assume was at the heart of that discourse, projected the status of first-generation students who are perpetually marginalized on their campuses. For the most part, South Africa is well positioned for the first-generation students’ justice project in higher education. Higher education practitioners can tailor student support from the experience of first-generation students as they are the largest population in and out of higher education institutions; this helps in improving the national status of first-generation students and how they can find their way in the world.

Naysayers will argue that institutions cannot be shaped from a majoritism view as that would be an injustice. The injustice, in this case, would be the idea that institutions have not moved fast enough to ensure first-generations students succeed. A great indicator of the lack of support for this population is the fact that 28% of South African students do not finish their studies in record time. Without comprehensive documentation and programmatic support to alleviate institutional barriers, this number will continue to persist—even for the worst.

Enabling a First-Generation Students Centered Support

  • Institutions should implement systems to identify first-generation students from early stages of admission. Due to the way the South African higher education model is set up, institutions can have a prospective idea of how many first-generation students are interested in their different faculties and how best can they begin to support them from that stage until their enrollment.
  • Tailored support and orientation for first-generation students is not a hit-and-run at the beginning of the academic year, it must be throughout different phases of the students’ time with the institution to best understand changing needs of the student.
  • Career readiness should be a justice project. This means that deliberate effort is required to reach first-generation students; there needs to be tailored information for first-generation students and matching them with resources they may need.
  • Support for first-generation students is an iterative project, it should evolve with the current context. In an era of branding and networking, how best are institutions equipping first-generation students with resources to brand themselves for the work they want to do in the world and how are they expanding their networks as most do not have access to exclusive legacy networks?
  • Though this may seem contradictory to the thesis of this article, but support—especially career readiness support—should not be given using a deficit approach. Often, we focus on what students lack instead of what they possess and how that can be enhanced. This approach helps in coaching first-generation students from their immediate realities. As a first-generation student, I benefit more from mentors who focus on enhancing what I already have by matching me with what could enhance my current position.
  • Career readiness support needs to be approached from an empathetic and design-thinking perspective. Advocates for first-generation students should often ask many difficult questions to those they are supporting and collaborate with students. This kind of support helps in understanding systemic issues experienced by the students and yields sustaining results.

The status of first-generation students in higher education should be guided by principles of justice, communal support and institutional accountability. Institutions of higher education must consider ways that their lack of support exacerbates inter-generational challenges faced by this ignored group of students in higher education. While centering students is an important part of improving the status of first-generation students, the initiative should be enabled and support by various institutional structures to ensure that the support remains sustainable and inventive with time.


Kabelo Motsoeneng is a Soweto-born writer currently doing his undergraduate studies at Trinity College. He is majoring in Human Rights Studies and English, focusing on Gender and Creative Writing, respectively. He currently serves as a Student Success Fellow at Trinity College where he manages, creates and supports programs for first-generation students. You can connect with him on the following platforms:
Twitter @belowrites |