Supporting First Generation Students: Succeeding From a Distance

The impacts of COVID-19 have been challenging for higher education, and these challenges are intensified for first-generation and low-income students. These students are especially vulnerable to sudden financial stressors like having to unexpectedly move out of the residence halls. It may be financially impossible to return home, especially for those

who reside in a different state or country. Students employed on campus now find themselves without a reliable income stream, and those who work full- or part-time at jobs off campus may no longer be employed as companies need to suspend or limit operations. Families are burdened with moving expenses, food, and household expenses—all while possibly being out of work themselves.  

First-generation students often are also expected to contribute to the household. If their household relies on income from someone who is essential personnel, students are now expected to be main caregivers for younger siblings or elderly relatives who may live in the home. In the webinar Three Big Diversity Related Questions Resulting from COVID-19, facilitated by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, student affairs professionals discuss the added pressures of navigating a pandemic in a full household. Students may find themselves in a space that is constantly occupied by others, unable to take exams or concentrate on a three-hour lecture. There are many first-generation students who are also first-generation American, much like Nageen Samimi from Metropolitan State University, who is finding herself alone during this time. Samimi had to transition her hefty course load online quickly, while away from her family and losing a full-time position that she needed to pay for school.  

The access to resources now looks very different for students. First generation and low-income students may not have access to a computer in the home, having formerly relied upon campus or public library resources. Access to a reliable Wi-Fi connection has become a real barrier for students trying to complete multiple classes; Idaho State University has even made Wi-Fi accessible at some of their campus parking lots. While this option is not perfect with the hotter months approaching and with having to possibly work within the cramped space of a car, it is still one more option for students that they did not have before. 

With so many increased challenges facing these students right now, there are a few simple things that can be done in a consistent way to support first generation and low-income students in your circles:  

  1. Reach Out & Check In: Taking the time and making the connection is one of the biggest things you can do to keep a first-generation student engaged. Ask them how things are going. Work to understand their current environment and talk through any concerns they may have. What they gain from on campus interactions is missing now, and their home life typically does not have the same learning environment or community they would find on campus, so being aware of the differences is paramount. Do not assume that all students have a supportive home to go to. Remember that your first priority is that your students’ basic needs are being met. They will not have the mental space to be able to talk about best practices for studying if they are concerned about where their next meal will be coming from. Also keep in mind that some of the students you work with and their families are at real risk of contracting the virus; be mindful of this with the language you use.  H
  2. Help with Resources: Do they have access to the necessary technology or are they in a remote area with limited access to adequate network connections? Be ready to talk through creative workspace options and to provide options for free or affordable resources through campus or online pathways. The University of Michigan is providing students with resources on where to find emergency short term funding, mental health care, technology and food resources, and communication platforms for peer support. Do not assume students know the resources that already exist as some first-generation students may not have built their cultural capital like others on campus. Laying out expectations, both explicit and implicit, will help students navigate their new situations, as Ema Wolfgramm-Foliaki wrote in the research, “Do not assume we know”: Perspectives of Pacific Island first in the family students.” Always keep in mind the needs and challenges of your students with different abilities; just the task of concentrating online for long periods of time is difficult for some. Connect students with the campus disability services office for more specialized assistance and be prepared to offer advice like the University of Washington’s tips on accessible course design. Also, share ways that they can connect with others that understand their unique situations. The University of California–Berkeley pairs undergraduate first-year students with graduate students who suddenly had to work through the challenges of moving a mentoring engagement program online. Through Zoom, students in this program were able to connect in small group settings to air their concerns over doing well in school and to offer support and suggestions in this virtual space. 
  3. Be Realistic: This is a pandemic. Talk through a schedule that works. Be open and flexible because a five-hour block of time dedicated for school work may not be possible for some students. See what they can do. Take the time to talk through the online platforms, making sure they are comfortable using them, and if not, being ready to provide them the resources to learn more. At the University of Florida, an infographic was created and is now used to share tips for first- generation students to succeed. At the Center for First Generation Success, a resource page provides support and basic information about how to help student succeed: Are there opportunities to involve family or housemates in programming or class work? What about older siblings who now find themselves as caretakers? What if there was an opportunity to show and share things about the collegiate experience with their younger siblings. This is exposure that they may have never gotten otherwise; and involving those the student is close with will help the college student maintain a connection to campus.
  4. Celebrate Victories: Take time to reassess where they are at, recognize that situations might have to change, and be ready and open to talking through that. Celebrate victories, everything from doing well on an exam to being able to take the time to meet with you. Students are doing amazing work right now, and that should be celebrated. And for those first-generation students who are no longer able to participate in commencement, celebration and recognition is especially important. The University of California shares personal stories on its first-generation student opportunities webpage, where a range of other advice and resources can be found.  

Being a support person for students can be daunting, especially with everything that higher education is facing. Remember to give yourself some grace and patience when being there for students. You may not have all the answers right away, but what first-generation students need more than anything is a connection and to know that they have support. Just reaching out and maintaining communication will make all the difference. 


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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