Faculty Can Ease First Generation Students' Transition

June 10, 2013

Academia has its own culture.  First generation students may have no idea that they are entering it. And we, the faculty, are so steeped in the postsecondary culture that we no longer realize its distinctiveness. 

In the anthropological sense, first generation students experience very real “culture shock.”  They end up, as Dr. Carmen Guanipa, has written, experiencing “…the lack of direction, the feeling of not knowing what to do or how to do things in a new environment, and not knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate.” 

For someone like me who was a first generation college student and who has advised many students as a professor over the years, this description rings true.

Using the term culture shock as the frame of reference for the first generation college student experience is useful because it helps faculty better understand what the student is experiencing and may even help the faculty empathize as they remember instances in which they have had to deal with their own culture shock upon entering a new country. We can recognize that first generation college students may experience a loss of identity, lack of confidence, depression, loneliness, a sense of powerlessness and homesickness for family and their familiar culture.

"A new language to learn."

Understanding the first generation college student within this context also suggests ways in which we as faculty can be helpful.  For example, first generation college students have a new language to learn, one full of terms of expression common in a college setting.  They need successes in this new world to regain self-confidence.  Above all, they need guides who can help them understand the new culture.  Faculty academic advisers, because of the high credibility we have with students, can be these guides.

In order to serve as guides for first generation students, faculty need the time to develop a relationship with students.  Relationships can be built by meeting with first generation students individually or in small groups and listening to their concerns and experiences.

It is also important to be accessible to students by understanding how they form relationships.  For example, upon arriving at a university with over 50 percent first generation students, I announced office hours and invited students to visit with me at these times.  I soon noticed that very few first generation students came to the office hours. It took me a while to figure out that they were too intimidated by the formality of the situation. In addition, many of them had other responsibilities for their families and were not able to come to the university outside of class hours. After careful observation, I saw that first generation students were more likely to approach me if I made myself available before and after class.

It is also important that faculty understand that it takes time for the culture shock of first generation to abate.  Students may not perform well on their first quizzes because they are being challenged by the new environment.  First generation students may take a while before they are comfortable enough to contribute to class discussions.  Establishing a mentoring relationship with these students will do much to ease their transition into the new culture. 


Ruth M. Bounous, PhD, LCSW, is a first-generation college student and retired faculty member from both Cornell University and Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio, TX. She is currently a psychotherapist in private practice.

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This blog is part of the First to Finish College blog project, produced jointly by Demos and SparkAction.

Ruth M. Bounous