“Students with parents that didn’t go to college don’t have that person they can call when they have a question. They have no map. That child is lost.”
Not having a ‘map’ or guide when you arrive at university certainly can have significant repercussions for the HE journey, not only in the initial stages of study but also as learners move through their degrees. This was a theme that was highlighted in our interviews and surveys with students (O’Shea et al, 2015). But can we confidently dismiss the family and community of FiF learners simply in terms of such ‘lack’? Our work with FiF learners adopted a strengths perspective that acknowledges the cultural strengths and capabilities that learners arrive with at university. By foregrounding student voice the intent has been to recognise and capitalise upon individual’s potential assets; not only considering gaps in understanding but also, existing capabilities and understandings (O’Shea, 2016).
In a recent invited opinion piece (O’Shea, 2016a), I reflect upon the situatedness of FiF learners. Recognising how decisions to attend HE are often embedded within family biographies but underscored by little ‘insider knowledge’ of this HE structure, goes some way to explain why this cohort may consider early departure (Coates & Ransom, 2011). However, families can also provide other assistance that we need to acknowledge and build upon – this may not include a ‘HE map’ but can be equally as important. We contend that the family / community of these students is an under utilised resource that needs to be effectively harnessed by universities.
The first-in-family website has deliberately been designed to capitalise on such existing support and is overtly inclusive of the family/community of the learner. This approach seems to have struck a chord with just under 12,000 hits to the website since its inception in April 2015. Interestingly, website statistics indicate widespread global engagement, in the last fifteen months the site has attracted visitors from the US (n=1,493), Russia (n=1,136), UK (n=341) and also many countries throughout Asia. In total, it has received nearly 4,500 hits outside of Australia with a total of 17.3 per cent being repeat visits. As the Fellowship continues, more resources targeting the family / community of learners will be available, this is in recognition of a need to better build upon this ‘family capital’ and recognise it as a key resource rather than a deficit or lack.
Coates, H., & Ransom, L. (June, 2011) Dropout DNA, and the genetics of effective support’. AUSSE Research Briefings, Volume 11, (1-16). Retrieved from http://research.acer.edu.au/ausse/1/
New, J (2014), The Opposite of Helicopter Parents, Higher Ed, Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/08/13/colleges-struggle-engage-parents-first-generational-college-students
O’Shea, S. (2016). First-in-family learners and higher education: Negotiating the ‘silences’ of university transition and participation. Invited article for HERDSA Review of Higher Education (Vol 3). Available from www.herdsa.org.au
O’Shea, S. (2016a). Supporting and engaging students who are the first in their families to attend university: A practise paper. Invited article for Journal of All-Ireland Society for Higher Education (AISHE), 8(2). Available from http://ojs.aishe.org/index.php/aishe-j/issue/view/23