NU study shows first-generation students lack independence

Paulina Firozi

Some first-generation students may be less independent as a result of coming from more community-oriented backgrounds, creating a “culture mismatch,” according to a new study led by Nicole Stephens, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

These students, whose parents did not attend college, have a more difficult time adjusting to collegiate life because their parents are not able to adequately prepare them, the March study suggests.

“We were interested in the culture of higher education and how that culture might be experienced differently by students who are more or less familiar with and comfortable with that culture,” Stephens said in an email.

The study, also conducted by professors from Stanford University, University of Arizona and San Jose State University, gathered information from administrators of universities and colleges across the country, to determine the culture on campus. They surveyed students at those schools to determine whether students are first-generation and to survey their level of independence.

First-generation student Daniel Flores, a Weinberg sophomore, said while first-generation students may have needed to be more independent at home, this quality may not translate into college life. He said first-generation students often come from minority or low-income backgrounds.

“For them, college is the opposite of what their experience in high school was like,” Flores said. “Like for me, I went to an all Mexican high school. It’s not just a culture shock; it’s an everything shock.”

To help first-generation students prosper at college, Flores is working on a project to reach out to first-generation students on campus who may not be as proactive in seeking support. First-generation students, the study suggests, have less experience with “understandings of the rules of the game” that are associated with middle class culture. These “rules” may allow continuing-generation students to better understand what exactly is expected from them once they begin college life. This leaves first-generation students at a disadvantage.

Communication freshman Maria Vela is a first-generation student but said she had an easier time adjusting than some of her first-generation peers. She attributes this to having traveled alone without her family many times growing up, which allowed her to become independent outside of her original community setting.

“A lot of them just break down,” Vela said of some first-generation friends. “They cry. Most of them get homesick. Most of them come from minority backgrounds, from communities with the same ethnicity.”

Flores said he agrees that the difference in upbringing directly causes this divide. He said while the families of first-generation students provide them advice and support, it can only go so far.

“I know that basically a lot of times, these students’ parents didn’t go to college, and they only have a high school degree,” he said. “But what can you say you learned in high school? They are extremely supportive and say, ‘You can do this, you can do that,’ but they have no idea what they need to be doing those things.”

Weinberg freshman Jessica Schapiro, whose parents both went to college, said she understands the divide and has seen the differences, having gone to a public high school with both first-generation and continuing-generation students.

“I’ve been preparing for college since middle school, doing extracurriculars, because I knew about my parents’ experience, so I knew what was expected,” she said.

Flores said he hopes his efforts will help bridge the gap between first-generation and other students.

“It’s about getting the knowledge out there, it’s about identifying students, having other students to relate with and ask questions,” he said.

NU’s extremely competitive environment may make first-generation students more apprehensive about seeking help, Flores said.

“At Northwestern, it’s a very elite mindset,” he said. “You don’t want to show any sort of weakness.”

[email protected]northwestern.edu