Common challenges and diverse experiences : first-in-their-family college students' narratives
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“First-generation college student” is a category ubiquitous in higher education literature due to the social mobility this group has the potential of deriving from educational attainment. However, the first category is comprised of a diverse group of students who do not share any other common research construct, such as race/ethnicity, culture, immigrant status, or socioeconomic status. In addition, the literature often conceives of firsts from a deficit standpoint, blaming the students for lack of success attaching low expectations to students’ identity. In addition, although the literature implies that an intersectional approach would be appropriate for understanding this population, no work to date has attempted to apply an explicitly intersectional framework or considered probing the boundaries of the category itself. The goals of this study, therefore, were to understand the narratives of successful firsts at a highly selective institution in order to understand how students’ intersectional identities shaped their educational trajectories, and to understand the impact of utilizing a socially constructed and deficit-oriented category in research and practice. To achieve these aims, this study utilized a visual narrative analytic method. Seventeen successful participants self-identified as firsts and participated in two one-on-one interviews and took or found pictures relating to their pre-college and college experiences. I found that firsts made meaning of their multiple, intersecting identities in diverse ways. Although students had internalized conceptions of first status as a detriment to their educational opportunities, they were able to reframe this deficit as success through the American dream storyline. In addition, students’ multiple identities intersected and informed their educational trajectories in unique and individualized ways. These identities flowed through the constructs of personal characteristics, familial characteristics, and characteristics that were negotiated in personal and familial contexts. Students conceptualized success being intrinsically linked to learning, contributing to future generational success, and saw themselves as making contributions to the academy via the ideas of service and diversity. Students were able to reframe negative societal expectations, focus on learning as a goal in and of itself, and associate success with self in way that suggests that examining firsts through any single identity frame limiting in understand the ways they navigate and make meaning of their experiences. In addition, students saw themselves as making unique contributions to the academy via service and diversity. The present study offers conceptual maps to explain how students talked about their identities as well as the notion of success. I also offer suggestions for research, theory, policy, and practice.