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MarYam G. Hamidani (Stanford University), Nicole Stephens (Northwestern University), and Mesmin Destin (Northwestern University) are co-authors on a 2014 report in Psychological Science that looks at factors that affect the college success of first-generation students. Hamidani, a psychologist and associate director of Stanford’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, spoke about the paper in an interview with Clifton B. Parker, published in the Stanford Report:
“Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap,” offers a new approach to help [first-
generation students] advance in college: discuss class differences rather than ignore them. The research showed that when incoming first-generation students saw and heard stories from junior and senior students with different social-class backgrounds tell stories about their struggles and successes in college, they gained a framework to understand how their backgrounds shaped their own experiences and how to see this as an asset,”
Parker continues, “[w]hile many colleges and universities have aggressively recruited more first-generation students, [Hamidani] said, the schools have not yet figured out how to get these students through college successfully. This has created “a paradox” that fuels, rather than mitigates, the growing inequality gap in society.”
The study, described by Parker, invited first-generation and continuing-generation students at the beginning of the school year to attend a one-hour program with a diverse panel of upper-class students talking about their transition to college, challenges they faced and how they found success. Half of the students attended a “difference-education” program while the other half attended a “standard” program. They were not aware of the separate programs or their content. In the difference-education program, however, panelists’ stories also included a subtle discussion of how their social-class backgrounds mattered in college. The panels included both
first-generation and continuing-generation students.
For example, when asked about an obstacle that you faced when you came to college and how you resolved it, the first generation panelist responded, “Because my parents didn’t go to college, they weren’t able to provide me the advice I needed. So it was sometimes hard to figure out which classes to take … I learned I needed to rely on my adviser more than other students.”
Responses to questions in the standard program were not linked to social-class backgrounds. For instance, one panelist was asked, “What do you do to be successful in your classes?” The panelist answered, “Go to class and pay attention. If you don’t understand something or have a hard time with the material, meet with your teaching assistant or professor during office hours.”
The report’s authors concluded that a one-hour difference-education intervention at the beginning of college reduced the social-class achievement gap among first-generation and continuing-generation college students by 63 percent at the end of the first year by increasing first-generation students’ tendency to seek out college resources, and in turn, improved end-of-year grade point averages. In addition, the first-generation students’ college transition was improved, as measured by several psychosocial outcomes (e.g. mental health and academic and social engagement).
In addition, continuing-generation students in the difference-education program experienced a smoother transition to college compared with their peers in the standard program. Hamedani concluded that “Both first and continuing-generation students experienced a more positive college transition,” “They were less stressed, felt like they fit in socially, and were more connected to their families, friends and school.”
Hamedani suggested that first-generation bridge programs that teach academic tips, tools and strategies, such as how to choose a major or study for exams, are not sufficient. She suggests that students also need psychological resources to support them on their path to success. “In American society,” she said, “we try not to talk about our class differences. We found, however, that college students can learn a lot about themselves and one another when they do so. Engaging students about differences, when done in the right way, can be extremely beneficial and empowering.”
Hamedani concluded that , “[h]igher education institutions have a responsibility to support and prepare students for success in our increasingly diverse and multicultural society.” And based on this study, first-year and bridge programs should not only include the standard, and important, “academic tips, tools and strategies, but also psychological resources that support not only first-generation, but all students on their path to success. In Part II will look at a study on the importance of cultural fit on the college success of first generation students.