Rutgers-Camden Blog

First Gen Student Coaching Considerations

portrait of african american male graduate standing outside college

According to TRiO, a national organization with programs supporting first-generation college students, a First-Generation student is any individual whose parents did not complete a baccalaureate degree in the United States. The National Center for Education Statistics data shows that after 3 years of enrollment, 33% of first-generation college students leave college without a degree compared to 14% of students who have parents with degrees (Cataldi, Bennett & Chen, 2018).

On the Rutgers University – Camden campus, over 50% of our student population identifies as first-generation. The first-generation population is not a monolithic group, but they have shared experiences, traits, and behavior patterns to help inform and guide our practice inside and outside the classroom as faculty and staff. Below I provide an overview of general characteristics and obstacles to success first-generation students face. I then discuss considerations when coaching this population.

Characteristics for Consideration

  • -Often come from low-income backgrounds.
  • -Are more likely to work 30 – 40 hours a week in addition to their courseload.
  • -May see college in vocational terms and pursue majors that are considered more “practical”.
  • -Likely to transfer from a public two-year institution.
  • -Likely to be a commuter and attend college close to home to still assist with familial obligations.
  • -May serve as cultural brokers or translators at home.
  • -More likely to experience imposter syndrome or feelings of inadequacy.

Common Barriers to Success

  • -Lack of support from family.
  • -Financial challenges.
  • -Lack of self-esteem and self-efficacy, often in the form of imposter syndrome.
  • -Trouble reconciling their cultural upbringing and expectations with institutional customs and norms.
  • -Balancing familial and social obligations with academics.

Coaching Practices

  1. 1) Read Between the Lines.
  2. Often students have built the skill of seeming like everything is together and just fine even when it is not. The one thing students know is that their main job is not to mess up this opportunity, both for their own sake, and for the sake of their community, family, and loved ones. Strive for cultural humility and try to understand students’ backgrounds and reasons for being here. Knowing this, ask genuine and thoughtful questions. Interrogate the “I’m good” and “I’m doing fine” responses that you get from students. Ask them what is going “good” in their life. Have them define what “fine” really means. Go one step further to make sure they know you are available to listen. This does not mean that you cross their own personal or emotional boundaries, but it does mean that you take a little extra effort to ensure they know you are willing and ready to listen.
  • 2) Focus on Relationship Building, Networking and Experience.
  • The end goal for many first-generation students is to graduate college so that they can get a job. It is important then to highlight the other nuances and steps to career success, such as building a network of relationships, developing soft skills, gaining internship or research experience early on, and aligning academic and career pathways that make sense for their interest and strengths. Encourage networking and faculty interactions. Be detailed about the best ways for the student to follow up once they have made a connection with you or coach them through how to follow up on other connections they have made with others. Access to opportunities is often a barrier for first-gen students. Directly invite them to engage in leadership and co-curricular opportunities on campus. Ask your network and industry contacts if they have or are willing to create opportunities for shadowing or internships for your students. Once they see this as a critical component of their success and are made aware of the importance of these opportunities, they will have no problem engaging with motivation and drive.
  • 3) Give Them the Chance to Try and Fail.
  • Often students may not engage in something because they do not feel the opportunity is meant for someone like them. Other times, we as professionals limit the potential for students to be great under the guise of protection when we are in actuality placing our own generalizations and assumptions on these students’ chances for success. For example, we may advise a student to take certain courses in a different sequence to ease their workload, without recognizing the financial hurdles prolonging coursework may have, or we may not explain to the first-gen student that spacing out coursework may lead to a less favorable review as an applicant to pre-professional program like Medical Schools. Some of the best intentions may still lead to negative impacts, and our role as practitioners is to create a supportive climate where students are made aware of the options and consequences, make their own decisions, and learn from their mistakes. Faculty can model classroom discussions or consider allowing multiple attempts on assignments. Staff advisors and coaches can encourage students to explore different academic and co-curricular interests. Allowing for chances to grow means some will experience failure. It is not our role to prevent that failure but to support and empower our students through it.
  • 4) Don’t Shame – Coach.
  • Though I personally don’t agree with the adage “there is no such thing as a stupid question,” I do believe there is profound importance in acknowledging that our first-generation student may not necessarily “know what they don’t know.” For example, don’t barrage them for not engaging the career office sooner if they happen to come in during their senior year looking for support. Many students I work with do not know they can approach professors who don’t pass back their  exams and quizzes with a request to physically see their errors so that they can improve upon them in the future. There are many institutional norms that are not common-sense practices for some first-generation students based on their upbringing and intersecting identities. The last thing you want to do is use intimidation techniques or make assumptions that students know how to engage with the systems, structures, and norms of higher education. Be honest, but helpful. Rather than giving students a long laundry list and overwhelming them, focus on what the student is doing right and build upon that. Some students might thrive with a long list, but often this is useful after they have a sense of self-efficacy. Coach them through the resources and options that are available. Coach them through designing actionable steps and celebrate in their success.
  • In closing, we all want to be seen as whole, not diminished down to one part of our story because of one identity. To experience being seen through only one lens is demoralizing and translates to an inaccurate perception of one’s true abilities. As student development professionals, it is on all of us – administration, faculty, and staff – to develop an equity mindset. By acknowledging the stories, systems and communities that have shaped each of us, we will be better prepared to encourage our students to leverage their stories as an asset toward their student success. 
  • Works Cited:
  • Cataldi, E. F., Bennett, C. T., & Chen, X. (2018). First-Generation Students: College Access, Persistence, and Postbachelor’s Outcomes. Stats in Brief. NCES 2018-421. National Center for Education Statistics.