December 04, 2017

#followfirstgenerationacademics

Colby (1)By Colby King

Scrolling through my Twitter feed one day this past summer, I read a tweet from Karra Shimabukuro, a PhD candidate in British and Irish Literary Studies at the University of New Mexico, with the hashtag #followfirstgenerationacademics. The tweet was signal boosting the hashtag, which was originated by Roberta Magnani, a Lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at Swansea University.

The idea behind #followfirstgenerationacademics was to create connections between academics and students between academics and students, who are from the first generation in their family to work as an academic. As a first generation academic myself, I was happy to see the hashtag. I replied to a few tweets and followed many of the people participating in the discussion. If you are a student or an academic interested in connecting, you may also be interested in following that hashtag and contributing to the conversation.

First-generation college students are often among the hardest working and most tenacious students on campus. And at Bridgewater State University, where I teach, they’re about half of the student population. Yet students from these backgrounds also often encounter a range of challenges unrelated to their academic ability. First-generation college students are more likely to be racial minorities and to come from working class and other backgrounds that are underrepresented or have been historically marginalized on many campuses. Terrell Strayhorn argues that all students can support their success by connecting with faculty and staff on campus that helps them finding a sense of belonging.

Campus cultures are often pervasively middle or upper class, and students from working class backgrounds often experience a form of class cultural mismatch as the norms of interdependence they grew up with do not align with the norms of independence on campus. It often takes first-generation students some time to learn their university’s covert curriculum, or to figure out how to navigate the institution’s bureaucracy. As students learn this hidden curriculum, they’re learning the structure of their institution and the culture of academia, as Karen Sternheimer has written about on this blog.

Many working class college students come to understand that their social class identity is malleable, to the extent they can “pass” as middle class on campus and in other social settings, by changing their clothes, their accent, or other behaviors. As Debbie Warnock points out, often “the whole point of attending college IS to change one’s social class identity.”

Allison Hurst interviewed many working class students from diverse backgrounds and found that they took on one of three strategic roles as they navigated college: loyalists, who maintain commitment to their working class cultural roots, renegades, who embrace middle class culture and goals, and double agents, who work to maintain a foothold in each world. Together, Warnock and Hurst have written about how organizing around social class can be fraught, particularly on elite campuses, as it often involves self-disclosing a stigmatized identity, but can also bring benefits to involved students. They call for increased institutional commitment to supporting first-generation and working-class students.

For these students, this shifting class identity can create other strains. The college experience may strain their relationships with family, creating a sense of guilt that has been described as survivor guilt, breakaway guilt, or family achievement guilt. Linda Banks-Santilli explains some of the ways this sense of guilt functions and what universities can do to support students who experience it. Even when a first-generation college student experiences success, they may develop a sense of impostorism, an unfounded doubt in their own achievements.

First-generation academics who’ve completed college and graduate school still often struggle with these challenges in their own work lives. Many have reflected on their experiences and shared strategies for working through these struggles. A couple of good books on this topic include Morris and Grimes's Caught in the Middle: Contradictions in the Lives of Sociologists from Working-Class Backgrounds, and Dews and Law’s This Fine Place So Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class. Interested in gathering information and promoting equity in the discipline, the American Sociological Association recently established a Task Force on First-Generation and Working-Class Persons in Sociology. Vinnie Roscigno is chair of the 14-member committee, of which I am a member.

So, #followfirstgenerationacademics continues in this great tradition of sharing experiences and providing support among first-generation academics and between first-generation academics and students. Many academics from these backgrounds are happy to share their stories and to support students from similar backgrounds. At Bridgewater State University, colleagues and I have started an initiative we call Class Beyond the Classroom to support first-generation and working class students. We have shared our stories with many students, participated in the First in Our Families Digital Storytelling project, and have taken student participants to Class Action’s First Gen Student Summit. Jakari Griffith, Meghan Murphy, and I have written about some of our efforts in this article.

If you are a student from a first-generation background, building connections with other successful students and academics from similar backgrounds can be an important way to support your own success. Through these relationships, you might hear from others about how they dealt with family achievement guilt or impostorism. Or, you might learn strategies that can help you navigate class cultural mismatches on campus in a way that works for you. My friend and colleague Jakari Griffith and I have written about how those kinds of connections can help athletes, but also first-generation students, build their social and cultural capital and support their success.

Beyond the hashtag, there are other organizations, programs, and resources in support of first-generation college students. Among these are a couple of programs that I like because they work to support the voices of first-generation college students and help them share their stories. First in Our Families is a digital storytelling project that emerged from a partnership between Jane van Galen, the University of Washington-Bothel, and Class Action. I’m First!, from the Center for Student Opportunity, also shares short stories from students who were the first in their family to go to college and provides resources for students from these backgrounds.

If you are a first-generation or working-class student, finding first-generation academics, whether on Twitter or elsewhere, as well as exploring some of these programs, or connecting with programs on your campus may help you navigate your campus culture, understand your school’s covert curriculum, and support your academic success.

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