The Fellowship also explored Canadian and US approaches to retaining first-in-family students – in Canada this included visits to both Western University and also, University of Toronto. The latter is a large urban institution with over 90,000 students spread over three campuses within the city, the largest cohort is domestic undergraduate students but there is a significant international student population as well. This university has a diverse student population that spans racial, cultural and also, linguistic backgrounds, a significant proportion of who are first in the family. At UT, I was able to meet both academic staff and researchers in the HE field with Dr David Kim, a recent Phd graduate who studied FiF mentoring programs kindly agreeing to an interview.  

Western University is located about 3 hours south-west of Toronto, compared to UT this is a smaller institution but still housing a significant number of students (n=30,000+). My reason for visiting Western was to meet with A/Prof Wolfgang Lehmann (Department of Sociology) who has been engaged in a lengthy research project with students from first in family working class backgrounds. Wolfgang’s work has been a source of inspiration and insight for me for many years and so this visit was an excellent opportunity to discuss the implications of this work for the Australian context.

Beginning with UT, David has just completed his PhD thesis entitled: In this together: The impact of mentorship programs on the first generation student experience. David’s research was particularly focussed on how participation in this program impacted on both students’ sense of belonging and also, their identity formation within the university context. While the study had many findings, of particular interest was David’s analysis of the how these learners were positively impacted by being mentored by other first in family students as this provided a sense of ‘possibility, direction and opportunity.’ Not surprisingly, David’s participants also reported how being the first limited the ‘navigational skills’ held within the family and that this often translated into a sense of being in a ‘race’ but sensing that each was starting behind others. While the students felt like ‘trailblazers’ there was also a sense of being an ‘outlier’ within the HE sector – with resulting lower sense of belonging for this cohort.

Image: University of Toronto

David’s work was of particular interest to me because as far as I am aware this is the first longitudinal analysis of a mentoring program that deliberately matches first generation students with mentors from a similar background. This is a strategy that I have advocated for but till now, had not had the opportunity to read any research that tested out the premise that this would positively benefit both parties. As David explained, using the mentors also alleviated the power hierarchy in the relationship as students felt more comfortable asking other students questions than staff members – this also provided a much needed source of ‘word of mouth’ knowledge (or as Ball and Vincent (1998) describe ‘hot knowledge’). However, equally it is important to consider how this type of relational support might avoid placing FiF students in a position of disadvantage, where they are expected to do all the changing and model themselves on the ‘successful’ FiF learner (i.e the mentor). Choice and training of mentors is crucial.

Prof Wolfgang Lehmann is a leading sociologist in the HE field and has been engaged in a lengthy and productive study with FiF students from working class backgrounds. This study, funded by the Canadian Government, followed a cohort of students between 2005-2010, touching base with them as they progressed through their degrees. In 2014, Wolfgang followed up with twenty of the students in order to find out their post-degree destinations. This study has provided great insights for my own work, particularly Lehmann’s theorisations around ‘habitus dislocations’ for working class students but our conversation also provided some excellent practical applications related to this work.

Image: Western University, London, Ontario

One of these relates to the co-curricular opportunities offered to students – often these are volunteer positions but are recognised as key to building up a good resume or portfolio for work. Indeed a number of institutions also provide additional transcripts or acknowledgements that highlight this work. However, such volunteer opportunities are in of themselves somewhat privileged, particularly for those students who are working long hours simply to afford attending university. Without intending to, such opportunities are creating a different type of gap in the HE environment between those who have the financial and also cultural capitals to avail themselves of such opportunities and those who do not. These and other insights from Wolfgang’s work have provided me with much food for thought in terms of my own applications of theory to this field – if you want to read more about these and the resulting recommendations the Fellowship report details these and is available here

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