Setting Up First-Generation Students for Success

Dr. Michael Ramirez is a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. He teaches courses on gender, work, aging and the life course, and film.

Dr. Michael Ramirez
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As I’ve observed my students over the years, I’ve often thought of the privilege masked as cultural knowledge—what my sociologist colleagues would call cultural capital—as something that some students have and others don’t. But does that theory hold water when we take a closer look? And what assumptions did I have to unlearn as I tried to better serve my students?

During my time at a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) in South Texas, I have borne witness to the differential experience of students at my university. As an HSI, about half of our student population identify as Hispanic/Latino. Likewise, our university is hub to many first-generation college students. Race and ethnicity intersect with class—and many of our students of color come from working-class backgrounds and/or are first-generation college students. In this post, I hope to shed some light on the unique challenges (and, dare I say, assets) that first-generation students bring to the table, and the small changes we as faculty can make in our classes to set them up for success.

Cultural Capital of Non-First-Generation Students

Let’s first consider the cultural capital with which non-first-gen students arrive to campus.

Many of my middle-class students arrive with a bundle of advantage. They generally know what to expect from day one in the college classroom. They know how to negotiate or just plain ask for an extension, extra credit, or other opportunities to help them—and rarely are they shy about doing so.

Their middle-class socialization has contributed to their success. Mind you, they of course must work to be successful in my classes, but their working-class and/or first-generation counterparts must exert additional effort to meet the same success.

Conversely, first-gen students often arrive without much familiarity with the norms of college. Some don’t understand what the meaning of supposedly common terms used by faculty, nor are they aware of the implicit norms of college. Given they have few, if any, social connections to people with college degrees, they have no opportunity to experience what to expect by osmosis. And their foray into college is often accompanied by juggling multiple responsibilities of school, work, and family. 

Even before day one in the classroom, their positions in life complicate their success in college.

Cultural Capital of First-Generation Students

However, what I have also noticed during my time at my university is the latent experiences of working-class, first-generation students as providing a different type of cultural capital for their college experiences. While their obstacles far outweigh the benefits, their life experience and backgrounds bring unique strengths nonetheless.

For one, first-generation students demonstrate little air of entitlement in the classroom. Likely never having felt destined to attend college, they typically take their positions seriously and with a cautious optimism. Many have navigated their entrance to the university entirely on their own and have done so due to a work ethic that they suggest stems from their parents’ working lives. With rare exception, they treat their college life as a job—something they take seriously and with respect.

Many of the first-generation students of color in my courses have multiple, often competing, responsibilities of school, work, and family. They often live with their parents and help their families with finances, caretaking, and other familial tasks. As such, they learn—rather, are forced to learn—the fundamental skills of time management.

How can we help set these students up for success?

As I reflect on my role as an instructor for a range of students who arrive with varying levels of advantage, I’m reminded of Tex Evan’s philanthropy with the Appalachia Service Project. His intention from day one has been to “accept people right where they are, just the way they are.” His perspective is one I increasingly attempt to model in my teaching pedagogy.

A few ideas I would recommend:

Make accommodations public. When some students ask for accommodations—be they extensions for assignments, redoing a lackluster assignment, extra credit, or other requests to boost their grade—make those opportunities available for all students, not just those who asked.

Normalize sharing study skills. After the first exam, I often schedule an open forum in which we discuss not only the exam, but also strategies for studying for the exam, as well as best practices for note-taking and other class actions. In the past, I’ve asked students to post their strategies on our LMS discussion forum. I cull the responses and print out handouts with a selection of strategies that may be most beneficial to students. One valuable suggestion from a student began with this: “To study efficiently, you need to focus on three main sources of material: lecture, [the textbook], and the additional readings. You are NEVER going to do your best if you’re not confident with all three sources of material.” After going into detail on how to study for each, she reminded students that the study guide is the “holy grail” and to copy and paste the contents into a blank document to use as a practice test. Other students provided pointers on notetaking. One student suggested: “When the professor says ‘This is important,’ it probably is. When he says that, put a star on your notes that indicates that that info is important to know.” Some struggling students have shared that these discussions have helped them reassess how to succeed.

Encourage collaboration with peers as resources for success. Some first-generation students incorrectly assume that all of their work should be independent. While papers and other assignments are typically individually completed, I have learned to encourage group collaboration for reviewing course material, completing study guides, and so on. Some first-generation students assumed working with others was “off limits” or “cheating”—another dimension of social-class socialization in which the middle class is trained to collaborate and with an eye on the benefits of teamwork.

(Re)direct students when they use incorrect email etiquette. I am rarely upset when students accidentally refer to me incorrectly (using Mr. instead of Dr. or Professor; starting an email with “Hey!”), but I am acutely aware that other professors at my university frown upon (at best) or chastise (at worst) students who do so. While I often take time to redirect students (and explain why) in these correspondences, what may be more helpful is to consider inserting a short section on your syllabus regarding proper email etiquette.

Informally define taken-for-granted norms and language in college. It took me a semester or two to realize some first-generation students had no idea what “office hours” were. Some thought those were time blocks I was working in my office and not to be disturbed. I’ve similarly observed initial confusion over the term “syllabus” and misunderstanding about a PhD. I make time to explain these and other discipline-specific terms used in my courses. Sociology isn’t the most jargon-filled discipline, but we do have our moments. I attempt to explain certain phrases, lexicon, and even the pronunciation of certain terms or theorists throughout the course. It can be fun, too—I now regularly have students practice how to pronounce the term “bourgeoisie” as a class during our section on social-class stratification. I consider pronunciation, too: I remind students that when they hear “VAY-bur”, I am using the discipline-specific German pronunciation of German theorist Max Weber.

Finally, consider inclusive content. When possible, I include material that centers first-generation, working-class, and minority populations to allow students to see themselves in my course content. Also important, I avoid doing so in ways that solely frames their disadvantage. I find that when I include examples such as how the attainment of an adult status (the points at which middle verses working-class individuals “feel” like adults) varies by social class, it helps show my students that their backgrounds matter.

These strategies will of course not evaporate the years of social-class division between middle-class and first-generation students, nor will they ensure first-generation students will succeed. But they may provide an opportunity for first-gen students to further learn the unspoken workings of college life. What’s more, they may help professors retrain ourselves to unlearn/relearn how the implicit assumptions we carry to the class work to advantage middle-class students at the expense of first-generation students.

Stepping into someone else’s perspective is among the most challenging things to do. When we as instructors do so while constructing our courses, we can get closer to securing a more level playing field for all of our students.


Note: All students anonymously quoted in this article gave their consent to be published on the Norton Learning Blog.

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