Celine-Marie Pascale is a familiar face around the College of Arts and Sciences. Many students are familiar with her classes and workshops on power and privilege. Many also have read her scholarship on language, power, and epistemology. Pascale’s expertise as a sociologist provides a unique foundation for her current role: associate dean for undergraduate studies. She is in her second year in the position, and deeply committed to cultivating policies and processes that improve the lives of AU students and faculty.
One of Pascale’s top priorities is contributing to an inclusive and collaborative environment by strengthening linkages among faculty, staff, and students. One of those endeavors is focused on outreach to members of the CAS community—students, staff, and faculty—who are among the first generation in their families to attend college or university.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, one in three college students is now first generation. That’s twice as many as a decade ago. There are nearly 900 “first gen” students at American University. Within the College, approximately 230 majors, 22 faculty members, and many staff identify as first generation.
We asked Pascale five important questions:
Tell us about first generation students.
As you would expect, when we think about building an inclusive environment we have to recognize that there are very few things that can be said about an entire group that will be true for everyone in the group. There is enormous diversity among first generation students. Some have grown up in relative wealth, and others in poverty. Some also deal with racism, sexism, or heterosexism. Some are doing academic work in a second or third language.
For students, being the first in your family to attend college generally means that you have developed strategic strengths of resiliency, determination, and perseverance. They did not necessarily face a clear or obvious route to college. Many first gen students talk about their efforts to research schools, to figure out where they wanted to go to school, and determine what they wanted to study—all with very limited help. They value hard work and are resourceful about figuring things out on their own. First gen students tend to see themselves as trailblazers—going to places their families have not been.
While first generation students have not had the benefit of parental experience to guide them, being a trailblazer has particular advantages. For example, first gen students often do not face the pressure of fulfilling parental dreams. They may have more freedom to pursue to their own life course. In the classroom, first gen students often contribute creative insights and “out of the box” thinking that enriches conversations. They are an important part of our growing diversity on the AU campus.
What are the challenges associated with the experience of being first generation student?
The single factor that makes the first gen experience most distinctive is that university life is an unfamiliar landscape. They may face particular challenges navigating the university system, developing study habits, engaging cultural transitions, and planning for the future. While the first year of university is never an easy transition, being first generation often means that students are not familiar with the culture of academia. Things that may seem obvious to others can be unfamiliar to first generation students. How do you make best use of a syllabus? Why do students go to office hours? What would you say to a professor in office hours?
As very independent and self-sufficient students, first gen students might have trouble asking for help. They are used to sorting out problems with school on their own. Certainly, their strength and drive can overshadow the holes in their knowledge about how to navigate academic life. Faculty and staff can make an enormous difference as mentors as we come to understand more about the first generation experience. For example, first gen students may not know what they don’t know—it takes cultural capital to be able to ask the right questions. Even when first gen students recognize that they would benefit from some help, they may not know that there is someone to whom they can turn. Faculty mentorship can make a tremendous difference in their retention and success.
Yet mentoring can’t solve all of the issues that first gen students face. For example, first gen students may carry a full course load while holding a job and commuting from home. At AU most administrative offices operate on 9–5 schedules, and this can make it very hard for students with complicated schedules to get to basic services such as the financial aid office. I am very proud of the academic counselors in the College, all of whom reorganize their time during registration so that the advising office can provide support to students until 7 p.m. This can make an enormous difference for students with complicated schedules.
In addition to mentoring and extended administrative hours, are there other resources that would support first generation students?
First gen students may face various forms of culture shock on campus and at home. A first generation student may be the only person in her or his social circle at school who has not had parents laying out a path to a profession for them. They may not share the same social, cultural, or economic capital as their peers at AU. This is why building first generation communities at AU is so important.
For first gen students, the college experience can be fraught with added anxieties regarding their relationship with their families. They may struggle to explain to their family why studying has to come before social time. For many first gen students, it can be hard to talk about what is happening at school with their families. They are experiencing a world that doesn’t necessarily translate. For example, reading books may not be valued as “work” in first gen families. Similarly, the value of study abroad may not be immediately obvious to first gen students or their families.
In addition, many first gen students may be so focused on doing well in courses that they—and their families—may not see the importance of extracurricular activities that help students to develop both friendships and lifelong networks. Especially for working and/or commuting students, extracurricular activities may feel like a luxury they cannot afford. Yet the sense of community that comes from extracurricular involvement is what often leads to higher rates of retention and degree completion.
I am really impressed by the way that first gen faculty in the College have stepped forward. The College has a newly formed first generation faculty group with 22 members—about 15 of whom are very actively thinking about ways to build community.
What programs are you developing that may help AU’s first generation students?
Having been a first generation student myself, it is important to me as an associate dean to create conversations and networking opportunities that will help both first gen students and faculty flourish in the College. Part of that effort is building a sense of first gen community, which involves developing both private spaces for personal conversation and networking as well as public conversations that increase visibility and understanding.
The College recently hosted a First Generation Faculty/Student Meet Up—Dean Peter Starr attended as a special guest. The evening unfolded in unexpected ways as first generation faculty and students used the freedom of a private space to share stories from their journeys. As faculty we had each navigated the first generation experience as undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. Over the years, we made mistakes, achieved success, struggled with our families, and negotiated new social contexts. Our stories were clearly a source of inspiration to students. We heard more than once that knowing that “we had made it” boosted their own confidence. And it was equally clear that faculty received a tremendous gift from students that night. It was as though we all had been waiting for this moment to meet our students. It was easy to admire their journeys, even if we had not always fully appreciated our own.
The first gen faculty group had met only a few times when we organized the Meet Up. The amount of enthusiasm and effort is impressive! We are developing two Facebook sites—one for first generation faculty, and another for first generation faculty and students. Our next event is a session for the upcoming Ann Ferren Teaching Conference.
The group is planning several initiatives to mentor first generation term and tenure-line faculty, to bring speakers to campus, and to plan events for spring 2016. We are working on a couple of interactive events—one in collaboration with Theatre Professor Caleen Jennings and her students.
What advice would you give to first gen students?
Every student who succeeds at AU has found some way—large or small— to make AU feel like home. My advice is to:
- Build on your strengths by seeking mentors. Every interaction with staff and faculty is an opportunity to be mentored. Find one or two people who will help to guide you when you are struggling and cherish your accomplishments when you succeed.
- Invest in yourself. Go to faculty office hours for every class—even if you don’t know what to talk about. Go to the Career Center, even though you just arrived at AU.
- Create your own community. Go to first gen events. Check out the Center for Diversity & Inclusion. Look into clubs on campus that interest you.
- Remember that we are all glad that you are here. Give us a chance to show you just how much that is true.