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For First-Generation Students, a Disappearing ‘College Experience’ Could Have Grave Consequences

For First-Generation Students, a Disappearing ‘College Experience’ Could Have Grave Consequences 

By Alison Berg JULY 17, 2020 

Mariela Guadarrama was ecstatic to finish her first semester last fall at the University of Houston. The first in her family to attend college, she did well on her first-semester exams and chose classes for the spring as her parents cheered her on. 

But just days after spring break ended, Guadarrama’s classes transitioned online as the coronavirus pandemic began rapidly spreading in the United States. 

Guadarrama, who plans to major in political science, did not have access to a computer at her parents’ house, where she returned when the university announced the shift to online classes. She had relied on computers in the university’s library, which closed along with the rest of the campus. 

“As a first-generation college student I was looking forward to making the most out of my college education since it was something my parents didn’t have the privilege of pursuing,” she said recently in a phone interview. “I grew up always wanting to attend university, and due to Covid I feel as if I’m missing out on the true college experience.” 

For some students, the trappings of that “true college experience” represent the appeal of campus life. For first-generation students, they are anything but superficial; they can be among the key forces keeping educational dreams alive. But as the coronavirus whittles away all signs of normalcy on campuses nationwide, first-generation students and their advocates say their education may be endangered. 

Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, said the barriers facing first-generation students amid the pandemic are exacerbated versions of what they’ve always faced in higher education. 

“College has unfortunately been more of a privilege for wealthier students, and institutions haven’t set up structures to help first-generation students who often come from lower-income backgrounds,” she said. “There’s this sort of whole set of assumptions about how you approach activities that these students don’t necessarily have.” 

‘The Brunt of Covid-19’ 

Another crucial component of academic success first-generation students may lose out on, Kezar said, is the ability to interact with professors in person, as many students may not feel comfortable asking for help if they have not built an in-person connection. Others may not be aware that asking for help is an option, as many students learn by watching their peers. 

Sonja Ardoin, an assistant professor of education at Appalachian State University, said the process of navigating a college education, already intimidating for a first-generation student, is likely to become more isolating if classes remain online this fall. “We need to do more work around socialization and helping people understand the processes we’ve created that can be barriers to higher education,” she said. 

Low-income and first-generation students “disproportionately bore the brunt of Covid-19,” said Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

“Many students are missing out on access to the college and college experiences that promote stability, security, housing, access to food, access to the internet,” he said. “What you don’t want is for them to fall through the cracks even more with online learning.” 

Many students, such as Guadarrama, rely on their campuses for all of those services beyond the classroom, and more. 

“If you don’t have a room to call your own, a space to work, internet — you can’t be a student taking full classes trying to do homework outside of Starbucks,” Jack said. 

While Jack said low-income students’ education is likely to suffer from online classes, he believes colleges are right to plan online instruction this fall, as low-income people — the students and their families — are more vulnerable to severe symptoms of Covid-19. “The reality is that low-income people are suffering the hardest from Covid-19,” Jack said, adding that a college’s decision to hold in-person classes would be “worse in the long run.” 

While Jack said some colleges and universities had acted appropriately in moving to partly or fully online methods of instruction, “many students are missing out on the opportunity to be fully immersed in the learning community and be shielded from some of the responsibilities that otherwise would fall on them.” 

‘Dream Come True’ 

Makenzee Adkins fell in love with sports as a 7-year-old, watching football games on television with her family in Man, W.Va., population 759. The town took high-school sports “extremely seriously,” as that’s “just about all we have,” she said. 

As the first in her family to attend college, Adkins was thrilled when she received her acceptance letter, in February, to attend the University of Charleston. While she did not plan to live in campus dorms, watching the Golden Eagles play football would have been a “dream come true” for her. 

Though most of her classes this fall will be held in person, Adkins won’t be able to attend sports games, join in-person clubs, or socialize with other students in “traditional” settings. 

Experts say those experiences are vital to the success of first-generation students, who often face more barriers to educational success than do their peers. 

Sarah Whitley, senior director at the Center for First-Generation Student Success, said a “sense of belonging” is crucial to a first-generation student’s success, and online classes may mean less access to clubs, doing research with a professor, and other outside-the-classroom opportunities that shape the college experience. 

“When you’ve made a selection to go to a traditional institution, you’re looking for an experience that’s hard to replicate,” Whitley said. 

To try to replicate the in-person social experiences of a college, many plan to offer virtual movie nights or club meetings over Zoom. 

ADVERTISEMCornell University, for example, plans to offer electronic sports in place of traditional intramural sports, while the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill plans virtual fraternity and sorority recruitment. 

Whitley said that while virtual socializing is better than no socializing at all, it may not be possible for first-generation students who lack internet access or who have time constraints they may not have faced without Covid-19, such as jobs or taking care of a family member. 

“They’re navigating demographic-related things, they’re more likely to need to work full or part time, they’re more likely to be caretakers, more likely to be cultural caretakers,” she said. “We as higher-education institutions have made going to college really hard.” 

Alison Berg is an editorial intern at The Chronicle.