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The Internal Psychology of First-Generation College Students - The Importance and Impact of Personal Relationships

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For many first-generation college students, home culture relationships can make or break a college career, so it behooves academic advisors and support faculty to know something about the psychology of the students' home culture relationships and the newer campus culture relationships during the process of advising them. 



The posting below looks at many important factors that are important to success of first generation college students. It is from the book, The First-Generation Student Experience; Implications for Campus Practice, and Strategies for Improving Persistence and Success, by Jeff Davis. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. ©Copyright, 2010 bu ACPA, College Student Educators International. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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The Internal Psychology of First-Generation College Students -

The Importance and Impact of Personal Relationships



Although some first-generation students will never be able to bring the campus space and the home space into any degree of correspondence, with the passage of time, most will become reasonably comfortable living in the campus space. Managing personal relationships with the people who populate these two discrete spaces, however, it is another matter. For many first-generation college students, home culture relationships can make or break a college career, so it behooves academic advisors and support faculty to know something about the psychology of the students' home culture relationships and the newer campus culture relationships during the process of advising them.

Family Relationships

Many first-generation students get ill-defined and ambiguous (if often enthusiastic) support for pursuing postsecondary study from family and friends; parents often encourage children to apply for admission, for instance, but then become more and more detached as acceptance leads to enrollment, which leads to orientation, and so on. Not having been to college themselves, they usually cannot provide much help with the details; for example, they often do not distinguish between two-year and four-year institutions, between public and private institutions, or between nonprofit and for-profit institutions. Although many first-generation students receive this significant but ill-defined support, many others are completely on their own. "While some come from homes that value postsecondary education, many F-gens lack this kind of support. The difference between the values and expectations of their two worlds is likely to cause significant dissonance" (Somers et al., 2004, p. 429). Being on your own is one thing, and many first-generation students do fine making important decisions without much help from friends and family, but some must confront more than a detached attitude or the absence of advice from the home front. In his article on the challenges many first-generation students face in Florida, Padron (1992) referred to the dean of students at Miami-Dade Community College, who reported dismay at the increasing numbers of first-generation students whose parents are indifferent or even antagonistic toward the educational system. Almost always...the school system failed these parents when they were students, and they dropped out in the tenth or eleventh grade with the actual skills at a fifth-or sixth-grade level. These parents are most difficult to reach and can diminish their children's educational aspirations and opportunities. (P. 74)

Nonsupportive family and friends behave in different ways and exert different kinds of influence. The out-and-out antagonistic ones rarely have a positive effect on the student, obviously enough. Others do not intend to make things more difficult, but they cause difficulties all the same; for example, they draw students away from their studies and back to the home culture when it is not appropriate. Many times these people do not fully appreciate the demands of attending college and do not attempt to understand them; they simply miss the student and want to have more contact with him or her. First-generation college students often need advice on how to handle this kind of pressure, and many times they have to decide what and whom they must leave behind. Students sometimes have to learn how to create distance between themselves and home culture friends who want personal relationships to remain as they were before college.

Some of the retention models student affairs professionals favor account for the kind of family backgrounds associated with nontraditional students, and others do not. Tinto's model (1975) that emphasizes both academic and social integration as keys to retention has been criticized as being too oriented toward traditional student profiles (Braxton, 2000; McCubbin, 2003). To the degree that Tinto's model is too oriented toward traditional students, it has limited value for predicting the success of first-generation college students. In response to this perceived inadequacy, Bean and Metzner's model (1985) emphasizes family background and financial issues, which may or may not be more appropriate for conceptualizing activities and policies that students go, however, we know family background is especially important.

Family dynamics are complicated, needless to say. Sometimes parents can put aside their private anxieties to give their children usable advice, and sometimes they cannot. Although it is common practice for American families to play some role in the college attendance of their younger members-and current trends indicate that families will play large roles in the future-the participation (or interference, as well as we shall see) of families of first-generation students can sometimes take on an exaggerated importance in the student's mind when juxtaposed with the multiple other issues that he or she must address. Institution advisors and counselors can do their institutions a favor by learning to recognize certain psychological patterns in their first-generation charges. In his analysis of the reports describing first-generation students' college attendance, London (1989), using language developed by the German psychiatrist Helm Stierlin, explains how first-generation students can be "bound" by their relationships with their parents, "delegated" by their relationships with their parents, and sometimes "bound and delegated" (p. 148) at the same time. London explains that, according to Stierlin's definition, it would be unlikely to find a fully bound child attending college: however, because of the closeness of many first-generation student families and because sending a child away to college is such a great unknown for them, first-generation students often do suffer from being partially bound to their parents in a way that is nonproductive for the child. That is, some first-generation students have parents who describe themselves as "dependent, and that unless the child provides essential satisfactions and securities the parents will suffer....Enjoying autonomy becomes virtually impossible, for any experimentation with independence raises the specter of treason against the parents" (London , 199, p. 149). It is not unusual for first-generation college students to think about their parents from this point of view, to understand that their parents see their leaving for college as a movement against family unity.

Although having feeling of being bound does not necessarily lead to poor academic performance, it is easy to see how such demands on a child could get out of control. Being figured as a "delegate," on the other hand, moving on to Stierlin's second category, can have a more subtle, if no less pernicious, effect on first-generation students. Delegated children may not be as tied to their parents' emotional ups and downs as bound children, but that is not to say they do not feel a strong connection to the home culture. "What distinguishes the delegated from the bound child, however , is that the former demonstrates loyalty by leaving the family, not by staying in it. Leaving, or more accurately, leaving as a delegate, paradoxically becomes a proof of allegiance and even of love" (London , 1989, p.154). Although "delegation is by no means always enslaving or exploitative" (p. 154), London continues, first-generation students can suffer from the imagined burden that they are a family's only hope. They may feel as if they must represent the family at all times and in every capacity. Although any student can wilt from too much responsibility for carrying the family name into the world of college and of work, these feelings can be especially strong in first-generation students. Finally, London reports that some first-generation college students can be both bound and delegated at the same time in their relationships with their parents; this is truly being caught between a rock and a hard place. Believing they must return home to help the family and stay at school to represent the family simultaneously, bound and delegated first-generation students hardly have time to be students at all. In severe cases, the contradictory psychological forces can become intolerable, and interventionist counseling becomes the only hope for keeping such students enrolled.

For students who tend to be a "delegate" in their relationship dynamics with their parents, tasks such as choosing an institution to attend can become problematic. Parents who think of their children as delegates may become very interested in the status of the college or university their children plan to attend. This would not necessarily be a problem if it were not that first-generation students' parents often do not know much about the post-secondary institution pecking order. First-generation students' parents who delegate their children may be more interested in the way the college or university their children plan to attend is represented in the popular media; for example, they may express the opinion that an institution without a football team, and a nationally recognized team at that, is not good enough. And even when a community college is obviously the right choice for students, such parents may advise their children in other less appropriate directions. One common pattern familiar to academic advisors everywhere describes the first-generation student who enrolls in a large public four-year university at his or her parent's urging without being committed to the institution or to a specific program of study. The student may not be ready to start a four-year program at all and may need a couple of semesters of a less rigid course of study before enrolling. A community college could be the right destination for such a student, one who is not quite ready to carry the family banner all the way to a four-year degree.

Family Mythologies About College

Many first-generation student families see college attendance as a place where a child leaves the family behind, for good or bad, whereas non-first-generation students leave their families, too, of course, but because leaving for college has become incorporated into the family mythology, part of becoming a full member of the family, separation anxiety does not hit them nearly as hard. The family members have guided the student to expect them. Although the size of first-generation families tends to be larger than that of non-first-generation families, leaving a  large family does not appear to be any easier than leaving a smaller one; in fact, just the opposite appears to be true(Duggan, 2001). Although his results obviously could have been produced by factors other than separation anxiety, Duggan (2001) found that first-generation students from families with three to four members were 12 percent more likely to persist than ones from families of seven or more people" (p. 9).

Unlike the helpful family mythologies that support the college attendance of non-first-generation students, some first-generation students have unhelpful family mythologies to deal with. Without consciously helping or hindering, parents can pass on unproductive beliefs about college and the world of work.

First-generation students may be more likely to believe in the myth that they can work long hours at college and a job and succeed in college. Their parents, unaware of the general education requirements of college, may even offer counterproductive advice regarding choices about which courses are necessary, thinking accountants do not need to take English. (Inman & Mayes, 1999, p. 2) When considering the success of first-generation students, it is important to acknowledge how little some parents know about higher education, and advisors and counselors must be prepared to address this lack of knowledge with respect. Parents' inaccurate views about higher education can come from Hollywood movies, TV, and other popular media sources-the seminal classroom environment itself is wildly distorted in most popular culture depictions-and, of course, parents will not be up on the latest movements and trends in postsecondary pedagogy. Although new insights into student development have helped many institutions examine their concept of the classroom as the main (if not only) place student learning takes place, for instance, contemporary postsecondary pedagogy that broadens learning to include service learning and other kinds of activities carries with it, paradoxically, the potential to hinder the progress of many first-generation students. Many first-generation students and their families identify classroom learning as the quintessential college experience. When first-generation students get to college and find out that this is not necessarily the case anymore, questions about authority can arise. Suddenly, roles are reversed and the child is telling parents what the world is like, surely the stuff of cultural confusion. Parents of first-generation students who hear reports of community service and other nonclassroom learning activities may react with suspicion at first. "Just what am I paying for?" we can imagine a parent asking.

Everyone at a college or university who works with first-generation students should understand that there are some things the parents of these students can do, and some things they cannot do. Student affairs professionals need to make sure their expectations concerning parent support and engagement are realistic. The research shows, for example, that parents do have a strong positive effect on college aspirations (Dennis, Phinney, & Chuateco, 2005; McCarron & Inkelas, 2006). It may be, however, that once their children realize these aspirations and reach the gates of academe, the parents' ability to affect their child's academic success positively is severely limited or maybe even nonexistent.

As mentioned most colleges and universities today provide postenrollment preregistration orientations for parents and students. Although there is virtually no research analyzing orientations in the context of parent participation and, more important, the effect of parent participation on the college acclimation process of their children, we can imagine the potential difficulties. To communicate the kind of complicated information that would allow the parents of first-generation students to be of help to their children, some institutions are even contemplating separate orientations for first-generation student families. But what would an orientation expressly designed for the parents of first-generation students look like? It is hard to understand how the general orientation most public four-year institutions provide parents and students, for example, would even begin to do the job. If the premise of this book is correct, and the absence of the intuitive orientation toward college is a very big deal, how can a one- or two-day orientation hope to fill in the gaps? Training first-generation parents to become useful advisors to their children seems too big a task.

London (1989) used the term "breakaway guilt" (p. 153) to represent the vague sense that descends on may first-generation students that they are doing something wrong when they leave the home culture for college. Other researchers who have focused on this state of mind as well, including Somers et al. (2004), call it "survivor guilt" (p. 431). According to them, first generation students from areas where few of their peers have had the chance to attend college can suffer from survivor guilt when considering the plight of their friend, especially if those friends run into bad luck or fail to thrive while the student is away at college. If survival or breakaway guilt is likely to be a problem for first-generation students, and it is for many of them, the best choice of postsecondary institution for them may have nothing to do with whether the school is public or private, two-year or four-year; the best choice may have to do with geography and distance between home culture and campus. In some cases the less information about what is going on at home the better. First-generation college students who are likely to be drawn back to the home culture by guilt may benefit themselves, their families, and their friends in the long run if they distance themselves from home culture issues as much as possible.


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Braxton, J. M. (2000). Reworking the student departure puzzle.Nashville, TN; Vanderbilt University Press.

Dennis, J. M., Phinney, J. S., & Chuateco, L. I. (2005). The role of motivation, parental support, and peer support in the academic success of ethnic minority first-generation college students. Journal of College Student Development, 46(3), 223-236.

Duggan, M. (2001). Factors influencing the first-year persistence of first-generation college students. Paper presented at the 2001 NEAIR Conference, Cambridge, MA.

Inman, W. E., & Mayes, L. (1999). The importance of being first: Unique characteristics of first-generation community college students. Community College Review, 26(4), 1-20.

London, H. B. (1989). Breaking away: A study of first generation college students and their families. American Journal of Education, 97(2), 144-170.

McCarron, G. P., & Inkelas, K. K. (2006). The gap between educational aspirations and attainment for first-generation college students and the role of parental involvement. Journal of College Student Development, 47(5), 534-549.

McCubbin, I. (2003). An examination of criticisms made of Tinto's 1975 students integration model of attrition. Retrieved from

Padron, E. J. (1992). The challenge of first-generation college students: A Miami-Dade perspective. In L. S. Zwerling & H> B> London (Eds.), First-generation students: Confronting the cultural issues (New Derections for Community Colleges, No. 80, pp. 71-80). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Somers, P., Woodhouse, S., & Cofer, J. (2004). Pushing the boulder uphill: The persistence of first-generation college students. NASPA Journal, 41(3), 418-435.

Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Educational Research, 45(1), 9-125.