Do Faculty Understand First Generation College Students?

It is an interesting experience when you read something, agree with it, find the author completely reasonable, and are still left angry about it.

That is what happened to me when I read a February 21st piece about first generation college students in the The Chronicle of Higher Education. In the article, Kate Queeney, a chemistry professor at Smith College, talks about how faculty often fail to understand the needs of first generation and poor college students whom they teach and advise.

Queeney illustrates this with her own experience. A few years ago, she advised a female undergraduate who earned her bachelors degree and successfully enrolled in a PhD program complete with tuition benefits, a $20,000 yearly stipend and health insurance.

Three years later Queeney finds out the student has dropped out of graduate school and moved home because "her mother had been diagnosed with cancer and had no way to support herself." This was Queeney's first clue that the student was from a poor family.

Anna had been my advisee as an undergraduate at Smith College. We had discussed her courses, her academic progress, and her plans for life after college, but I never knew that her family had relied on welfare. She had taken classes in our small department, which prides itself on strong, personal connections to our students. But we'd had no clue about Anna's financial circumstances. I knew she had attended a private high school, but I didn't know that a family friend had paid for it. I thought she had a quirky sense of fashion—not that her choice to wear secondhand clothes wasn't a choice at all. In [an] offhand remark about graduate stipends, I had breezily referred to a 22-year-old earning more than $20,000 a year, with tuition and and health insurance included, as "poor." Anna already knew what "poor" was.

Queeney reveals herself as extremely thoughtful in her essay. In reflecting on her experience, she realizes the she had failed to see the whole picture, and as a result may have done a disservice to this particular student and others like her:

When I began teaching, I knew there were offices and departments at Smith that helped students in need—financial aid, residence life, counseling services. I figured my responsibility was to point a student in the right direction if she seemed to be struggling. Chemistry was my expertise, and I had a real fear of treading on students' personal boundaries. That was for someone else to do—someone with more expertise on those matters than a chemist. 

Queeney describes an important change of heart, one that might be a model for other professors.

More recently, though, I've come to realize that my role as a faculty member sometimes gives me a frontline view into a student's life—if I make a conscious effort to look. I didn't know Anna's story until after she left, because I didn't ask the right questions when she was here. 

Last week I was talking to my own college advisor about how some faculty fail to get, or to care, about the full context of their students' challenges. Twenty years ago, I was a first generation college student trying to make my way through an Ivy League school. I was on completely foreign soil, and struggled as I learned to navigate this strange land.

I was extremely fortunate to have a good person, one who understood where I was coming from, as my guide. I was from a small coal mining town in eastern Pennsylvania. My advisor came from a similar place in western PA. She was also first generation, and understood the baggage, responsibility, and resilience that entailed.

Her teaching career has spanned many decades. In that career, she worked at many types of schools -- from large public institutions to elite private ones to small colleges tailored toward minority and low-income students. One of her frustrations was how the elite schools, the ones with the most resources, often miss the mark the most when it comes to supporting first generation students.

The issue here is rarely a lack of resources. It's a lack of focus and everyday awareness on the part of faculty. Kate Queeney has written a great article about the dangers of overlooking the personal challenges faced by first generation students, and given her colleagues something important to reflect on about the importance of changing that. What is frustrating is that this lesson is still such a novelty for those working in higher education.