My name is Sarah O’Shea and I recently received an Office for Learning and Teaching National Teaching Fellowship to continue my work and research with first-in-family students.
I have established this blog site as a means to start conversations around how higher education institutions can best support and engage students who are the first in their families to come to university. This work intends to produce practical strategies and resources to assist stakeholders in their work with students who are first in the family to come to university.
If you are interested in learning more about the work I have completed in this area please see my publications here.
First-in-family students (FiF) are a growing student cohort within Australia and often fall into multiple equity groups; our previous research has indicated that FiF can be best conceptualised as a ‘supra’ equity category that works across the recognised categories of Low SES, regional, gender, disability and Indigeneity (O’Shea, May, Stone & Delahunty, 2015).
The Fellowship builds upon findings from an OLT Seed Grant (O’Shea, May & Stone, 2014), which underlined the pivotal role played by those closest to the learner in the enactment of success within the higher education environment. However, family and community members do not necessarily know or understand the best ways to support learners once they arrive at university (O’Shea, 2014, 2014a, 2014b; Stone & O’Shea, 2012). For example, learners have reported “silences” in the home around their higher education participation (O’Shea, 2014) and family members have similarly described (in surveys and interviews) a lack of knowledge concerning how best to support the higher education participant in the family.
‘That’s when I realised it was going to be quite an impact, especially weekends; very late nights, like last night, that I think I was unprepared for. However, you can’t expect for everything or you can’t prepare for everything. You don’t know what you don’t know.’
(Noeleen, 47 year old student and mother of two)
In response to this, the OLT grant has produced a range of resources targeted at learners, key family members (parents, children, partners) and also university teaching staff. Building upon these resources, the Fellowship will work closely with practitioners in order to systematically embed strategies that will assist learners (and their families) in the transition to university and also retention in this environment.
Adopting a focus on those who are first in the family also avoids any stigmatisation that may be associated with outreach or university support programs. This Fellowship deliberately avoids singling out specific equity populations such as Low SES or Indigenous, recognising that many of these students will be FiF, and instead seeks to reframe outreach as inclusive of family/community and also importantly, celebratory. Rather than students being defined as lacking (wealth, language, ability), how much better to welcome them and their families by celebrating “being the first”?
“I’m the first person I think in my entire bloodline to set foot in a university.
Ultimately, this blog will endeavour to connect with stakeholders in order to work through ideas and strategies that will foster meaningful connections with the family/community of first-in-family learners in order to sustain student engagement, as these learners transition into the university environment.