Being everything to everyone: the lived experiences of first-generation college students and how colleges can better support them
Balliro, Shannon Dolan
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Over the course of the past few decades, first-generation college students have been analyzed from many angles. With research ranging from quantitative reviews of lower graduation and retention rates, as well as higher attrition rates (Engle & Tinto, 2008; Inman & Mayes, 1999; Terenzini et al., 1996; Tinto, 1975), to qualitative case studies focusing on the psychological aspects of preparation, parental support, and identity formation (Lara, 1992; London, 1989; Rendón, 1992; Rodriguez, 1975 1982; Skinner & Richardson, 1988; Weis, 1985), this population has been well documented across a spectrum of research methodologies. More recently, scholarly attention has shifted toward a more individualized approach, focusing on smaller cohorts within the larger first-generation college student population (Collier & Morgan, 2008; Covarrubias et al., 2019; McCoy, 2014; Phinney & Haas, 2003). The goal of this three-article dissertation is to highlight and prioritize first-generation college students’ voices and narratives by emphasizing their lived experiences, as well as reviewing the support services currently available to them. This goal is addressed using three distinct, yet interconnected articles all utilizing different research methodologies. The first article, a phenomenological case study, addressed the experiences of six female first-generation college student caregivers (Orbe, 2004; Pyne & Means, 2013; Covarrubias et al., 2019) at a large, prestigious, research-driven institution in the Northeast. The second study, a singular, narrative case study, utilized the construct of intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1994; Pyne & Means, 2013) to examine the experiences of a female, first-generation college student caregiver of color as she navigated the higher education system. The last article, a comparative case study, examined the available first-gen support programming at three institutions in the same metropolitan area. This final study also included administrator perspectives about what is required to implement and execute first-generation college student support initiatives. The major implications of this dissertation project include the following: a strong recommendation for increased intersectionality in all first-gen support programming; a discovery of the causational relationship of being a first-gen caregiver and the added difficulty that multi-layered identity creates; a demonstration of the need to motivate and utilize collected student data in order to inform first-gen program creation; and a recognition of the stressors placed on certain campus stakeholders and the need for enhanced cross-campus collaboration to improve first-generation college student support. Future research and specific recommendations for the field of higher education are discussed.