In grad school, first-gen students face additional hidden challenges

There’s a growing recognition of the challenges faced by first-generation undergraduate students—and a growing array of campus programs designed to help them flourish. But the first-generation student experience isn’t limited to the undergraduate years: in fact, “those struggles are amplified in graduate school settings,” Bailey B. Smolarek writes for Inside Higher Ed.


Georgetown course helps first-gen students master ‘the hidden curriculum’

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“People tend to assume that if someone makes it through the bachelor’s degree, they enter graduate school on a level playing field. But that is often not the case,” says Smolarek, who was the first in her family to attend college, has completed master’s and Ph.D. programs, and is an associate researcher at the University of Wisconsin Madison. First-generation graduate students not only continue to grapple with some of the same challenges from their undergraduate years but also face new ones as “linguistic style, embodied habits and dress, and social connections become even more important to success.”

Smolarek recounts several times she would have benefitted from better understanding the social norms of graduate school life. She was hesitant, for instance, to ask professors if she could be taken off wait lists or work on their studies, thinking that was “presumptive, entitled, and disrespectful.” Her peers, however, had no problem asking—and more easily secured graduate assistantships and other opportunities.

Financial hurdles also continued to take a toll. Because Smolarek had to work to stay afloat, she had fewer opportunities to fully engage in her learning and often missed out on conferences, lectures, and research opportunities.

Long-term implications for the academy

Smolarek calls on graduate schools to better recognize and address these challenges, noting that many of today’s graduate students will eventually be teaching other first-gen students. “Discussions of access, equity, and support for such populations must also include a discussion of who is teaching them,” she writes.

While lauding universities’ efforts to enroll more students from diverse backgrounds, Smolarek says institutions could do more to create environments that nurture students from underrepresented backgrounds. She points out the danger of “forcing first-generation students to change their cultural sensibilities and ways of being in order to belong,” given that those students’ ability to “see things differently” can make them especially strong colleagues, mentors, and instructors.

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