Stoking Inner Fires: First Gens on Mrs. Obama’s New College Push

December 3, 2013

See Part 2 of the responses: Experts on Specific Policies >>

Michelle Obama's November 2013 visit to Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C., placed a stake in the ground for the First Lady to take a more active role in getting more low-income students to and through college. Mrs. Obama talked about her experience as a first-generation college student with Bell sophomores.

We asked a panel of experts, many of them first-gens themselves, why it's valuable for the First Lady to share her story. Here is what they told us:

“Seeing where she is and where she came from can show other first-gen students that they too could be the next first lady,” said Frances Medina, a first-generation college graduate who works at the Red Hook Initiative, a nonprofit devoted to youth development in Brooklyn, New York. As Millie Hau, director of the SEO Scholars program at Sponsors for Educational Opportunity in New York City, told us, “When someone like Michelle Obama shares her story, it shines a light on what's possible for thousands of students across the country.”

Ruth M. Bounous, a former first-generation college student and retired faculty member from Cornell University and Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, pointed out that “Young people are by and large experiential learners. They learn best when they can experience directly or use the experience of role models to set their aspirations.”

Catharine Hill, president of Vassar College, agreed: “Role models … demonstrate to lower income students and their families that they can attend and graduate from college…. [They] make it clear what opportunities an education makes possible.”

The reframing of self-identity that comes along with this expanded sense of possibility is powerful. Ben Castleman, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia who designs interventions to combat the “summer melt” that can derail lower-income students’ college plans, noted that research about stereotyping indicates that “priming students to think of particular aspects of their identities can have a profound impact on their academic performance. … Low-income students may exert less effort in school and invest less energy in exploring or applying to colleges if they believe that ‘students like them’ don't go to or succeed at college. They may believe that colleges don't want students who grew up in neighborhoods like theirs.” 

“Mrs. Obama is priming a wholly different identity for the students. I read her message to the students as, ‘You are strong. You can persevere. You have grit.’ Students who view themselves as having these attributes may in turn work harder in school or be more likely to seek out help with college applications,” Castleman said.

“Grit” is a concept that’s coming up a lot when it comes to predicting which students will rise above difficult circumstances to succeed in school and higher education. Laura Siko, director of off-campus sites for Northern Virginia Community College, thought that “The most important point the First Lady makes isn’t the financial feasibility of higher education, but rather the self-determination and initiative that’s often required of first-gen students. Being the first college student in the household means, doing the research, making the calls, completing the paperwork (on time!) and taking control of your own education.”

But as A.T. Miller, associate vice provost for academic diversity at Cornell University, pointed out, grit alone isn’t enough, particularly when students are contemplating moving into the different world that college can represent: “Cultivating discussions and writing about values, goals, aspirations, and hopes” are ways to prepare these students. It’s “not just grit and determination. [We must] stoke the inner fires of purpose, not just vocational access and job possibilities or ‘escape’ from circumstances -- especially when that's [different from] where the people you love are.”

One way to help students move between these worlds is to involve their families and communities, and to start emphasizing the culture of higher education while the students are still in their early years of high school. As Bounous noted, it’s important for Mrs. Obama to support “community and post-secondary efforts to get minority and low-income children and their families into bridge programs in their sophomore year of high school that expose them to the expectations and culture of higher education. I think the reasons so many in this group don't go on or retain in college are complex and involve more than adequate academic preparation.”

“Mrs. Obama is making it socially acceptable for low-income students to seek help to get into and to finish college.”

Retention in college is another key goal, and our experts thought Mrs. Obama has the right platform to promote it. “By sharing her story, Mrs. Obama is making it socially acceptable for low-income students to seek out help in order to get into college, and to finish college,” said Nicole Edmondson, director of the Northumberland Regional Center at Luzerne County Community College in Shamokin, Pa.  “Too often young people focus on the celebrities or wealthy individuals that are college drop-outs, such as Mark Zuckerberg.”

We’ll be watching the first lady as she grapples with this new focus, and we’re eager to see her bring her talents to serve these students. As Ron and Rodney Lewis, co-founders of The Lewis Influence, who are writing a book on first-gen determination, told us: “Understanding Mrs. Obama was [in] the first [generation] in her family to graduate college is extremely motivating. ... To have someone in the White House associating with first-gen college students is extremely powerful and most certainly a tremendous step in the right direction.”

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, and read more reactions here.

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Photo Credit: Mrs. Obama speaking at the Spelman College commencement in 2011. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.) Used under a Creative Commons license 3.0.