by Karina Miki Douglas, University of Western Ontario

A special thank you to Dr. Anabel Quan-Haase of the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, and Dr. Ronald Hansen of the Faculty of Education at the University of Western Ontario for their support and co-supervision of the research project.

This is s summary of my presentation with a few observations from audience members – I will be posting th detailed slideshow and notes with the other presenters when we’re given more information on that. I decided to pare down the visuals and make the presentation more of a two-way discussion, which provided some very interesting input from the audience.

Here is the gist of the topic:

“First generation students” in the context of higher education studies generally refers to postsecondary students who are the first in their families to attend college or university.

The term used and definition given in the ERIC thesaurus is

First Generation College Students: Students who are the first in their families to attend an institution of higher education – more strictly refers to students whose parents have attained education at or below the high school level.

(If you thought that the term referred to students who were the “first generation” children of immigrants to a country, you are not alone; the phrase is not entirely indicative of educational status within a family, and I would have never thought to look for such a phrase when I began researching the topic 13 months ago.)

Demographics and Challenges:

Here I asked for audience input, and as expected, the responses reflected an inherent understanding of what characteristics (i.e. socio-economic) would correspond with (or be the outcome of) familial education.

  • Came from an ethnic minority group
  • Lower income, “working class” families
  • Tradition of an inherited vocation in life (e.g. “We have always been a family of…”)
  • For the student, there may be an underlying sense of pressure that the success of the entire family is riding on his or her academic accomplishments (Or, to paraphrase the idea, “All the family’s resources have been pooled into an uncertain bet.”

Literature reviewed in higher education studies note the following characteristics:

  • Between 25 to 40 % of students (depending on the study and the institution type) are first-generation; on average they represent about 1/3rd of the entire postsecondary population
  • Generally come from lower income families
  • Many are older that th average age of 18-23 for undergraduates
  • Obligations, such as work and/or a family, lead to part-time enrollment in a programme
  • Students are more likely to commute to the school rather than live in residence or nearby
  • More likely to belong to a visible minority
  • More likely to be female
  • More likely to have experienced racial or gender discrimination
  • May also come from a home where English is the second language

(References: Terenzini et al., 1996; Grayson, 1997; Tyckoson, 2000; Choy, 2001).

The Concern:

First generation students face a disproportionately high risk for attrition in a higher education institution than peers whose parents have obtained postsecondary accreditation. Even when factors such as income and resources are eliminated, the risk remains (and many students actually do terminate their education prematurely)

One study found that “… the risk for attrition in the first year among first-generation students [is] 71% higher than that of students with two college [i.e. university]-educated parents.” (Ishitani, 2003, p. 433)

Making Gains:

Several studies (e.g. Terenzini et. al., 1996; Grayson, 1997; Pike & Kuh, 2005) noted that students who used the academic library on a regular basis made more gains in their course of study than students who did not use the library. One of the things I noticed, however, was that since the majority of the literature came from studies in Education, the researchers’ descriptions of library usage/experiences used in surveying the students reflected a more “traditional” model of the library – one with the emphasis on physical documents (i.e. books, journals, etc.) and the facility itself (e.g. in Pike & Kuh, 2005, they defined one of the “library experiences” as using the library as a quiet place to read or study materials one brought along).

One essay, which also served as the basis for my study, came from Library and Information science:

Library service for the first-generation college student (in Jacobson & Williams, 2000) is by David O. Tyckoson, Head of Public Services at the Henry Madden Library, University of California, Fresno. Combining his experience in the library setting with some of the literature from education, he detailed seven prescriptive measures that academic libraries could take to make their services meet the various needs of first-generation students:

  • Identify first-generation students
  • Schedule instruction sessions during evening and weekend hours [for students working during the day]
  • Design assignments that do not discriminate [i.e. require students to be on site to complete]
  • Provide a “family friendly environment” [in his case, children were allowed into the instruction sessions as long as they were not disruptive; his library also had many children’s books used by the Faculty of Education, but they could also be signed out by parent-students]
  • Offer personalised research services
  • Establish peer mentoring programmes
  • Become a part of the first-year experience

Present Study in Brief:

Since the literature reviewed for the study focussed on first-generation students themselves, I shifted perspective to gain some insight from the academic librarians themselves, as they work one-on-one with students across a diverse spectrum. This was an exploratory study and involved interviewing 5 participants who worked directly with students in a reference/instructional capacity for at least one (cumulative) hour a week.

Note: The professional master’s degree was not a requisite to take part, and one participant was a library technician working in a reference/instructional capacity to a discipline-specific library.

Participants (4 Subject Librarians & 1 Technician) were interviewed using the same 16 open-ended questions on three themes:

  • Librarianship (e.g. number of years in the academic setting)
  • Educational Background (participant’s and family)
  • First Generation Familiarity (e.g. Demographics, Challenges, Presence in the School)

Overview of Findings:

  • All participants had worked in another setting prior to the academic library
  • At the time of the interviews (November, 2006), time working in the academic library ranged from 7 months to 24.5 years
  • University education ranged from 3 years + a postgraduate diploma to a PhD (not in Library Science)
  • The 4 subject librarians all had the professional master’s degree
  • By coincidence, all 4 also had at least one parent who worked professionally in education
  • The library technician had been a first generation student
  • One librarian had a parent obtain her university education off-campus, which provided the generational experience in the academic context, but not the social-culture experience of the campus environment
  • The term “first generation student” (as expected) could be interpreted in one of two ways, but all participants recognised and understood the concept of being the first in one’s family to attend postsecondary school
  • Speculated demographic characteristics and challenges matched what previous (and generally quantitative) studies stated about first generation students
  • Emphasis on information literacy instruction, especially with regards to electronic resources (e.g. databases, search engines, etc.) recurred as theme in all responses regarding services offered by Western Libraries
  • The subject librarians, as with the library infrastructure itself, were proactively (and creatively) involved making themselves noticed on campus, and reaching out to students in their place of study (e.g. Instructional sessions held right in first-year residence buildings; working with recent medical graduates in residency at the local hospital)
  • In addition to technology in the library, space was another underlying them in regards to services (harkening back to Tyckoson); there are six libraries within the main campus system, plus several affiliates and a discipline-specific library
  • Specific types of services vary even amongst the six main libraries (e.g. Instant Messaging reference is offered in the Science/Medical library, but not by the Humanities/Social Science one)
  • In the discipline-specific library, there is a Local Area Network (LAN) that allows access to required databases, which means that in some instances students physically have to be on site to complete certain assignments
  • Western is also identified as a “residence university” (versus a “commuter university”, such as York, as identified in Grayson, 1997), which means students services have been aligned to targeting first-year students that are on the campus
  • Overall, there are many initiatives and services offered by Western Libraries that can be beneficial to first generation students in place of an actual targeted programme (at the present); making those services known is the ongoing concern

When a First Generation Student Succeeds:

In conclusion, whatever the means to improve chances of a first generation student succeeding, the experiential benefits go beyond the time spent in school. The greatest influences on a child’s education endeavours, especially in attending postsecondary school, are the parents’ [or guardians] level of education obtained and parents attitudes towards higher education (Learning Policy Directorate Strategic Policy and Planning Human Resources and Development Canada, 2004). This was reflected in the study by a participant who noted that her experiences on campus could now be passed along to her children, such that they would know what to expect when they entered university.

For Thought:

A couple points were raised by the audience at the workshop, and I would certainly like to read your suggestions, regarding these:

  • How do you identify first generation students in a way that does not marginalize them?
  • Related to this, one of the librarians in the audience noted that where his school is located, CLASS is a bigger issue than RACE. How do you deal with class perception in a campus culture? How can support be provided for students in a way that does not reinforce class association (or perception of it) by types of academic/assimilation challenges?
  • Someone also noted that Statistics Canada refers to “generational mobility”; any more insight on that?

Note: I have attached the complete bibliography used in the original guided research project on which the workshop was based.

I will be posting the handouts with the other published materials, but if you are interested in a copy beforehand, please email me at the address on the contact list. Full Bibliography Used in the Original Study


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