News & Press: Articles

Creating Partnerships in Support of First Generation College Students

Friday, October 18, 2019  
Share |

Author: Mandy Brookins Blinn, DePauw University, in collaboration with the 2014-2015 Diversity Abroad Task Force on First Generation College Students 


First Generation college students face many obstacles when it comes to success in higher education[i]. Many of those obstacles come well before study abroad, and actively influence a student’s ability or decision to study abroad.

  • Knowledge gap: First generation students frequently lack the knowledge and vocabulary of higher education such as how to select a major, time management strategies, how do I approach professors for assistance, or what are the co-curricular options and what value does study abroad or internships bring to my education[ii].

  • Academic Preparedness: First generation students, on average, have lower overall GPAs and drop out at a rate higher than their peers who have at least one parent who has completed a four-year degree[iii]. Study abroad often requires a minimum GPA and occasionally course pre-requisites to participate. While it’s important to ensure academic preparedness and the maturity of students on a program, first generation students who may struggle academically in their transition to college may inadvertently not meet those minimum standards and ultimately be left out.

  • Financial Obligations: The cost of attending college continues to rise and puts tremendous stain on family budgets. Particularly those families where neither parent has a college degree. Just to attend university, first generation students often have significant financial obligations to their families, and are financing their education through student loans and part time, sometimes full time, employment. Taking out additional loans, or stepping away from a paying job for a semester abroad or longer is not a viable option for many first generation students. Study abroad can also be seen as an extra, or an expense, instead of an investment.

These challenges are not stand alone obstacles. They each influence the other as a student moves on the trajectory of a college education. Taken together, they can have a vicious cycle effect on a student’s mobility on campus, and ultimately their access to critical educational opportunities such as study abroad and internships.

Unlike students of color, first generation students often fly under the radar as an invisible and varied group. As a silent underrepresented group, it can be challenging to identify first generation students and develop programming and resources for them to succeed. Therefore, it is necessary to involve multiple stakeholders around campus to create seamless and comprehensive support that address the most common barriers to success on campus, and pave the way for access to co-curricular learning such as study abroad.


Step 1: Define “First Generation.”

There is no one definition for first generation college student[iv]. Before a campus can start developing programming to respond to the needs of any group, there must be an agreed upon definition. Whether first generation refers to parents who did not complete a bachelor’s degree, or simply parents who did not attend college, will make a difference in how an institution categorizes these students and how to response to their needs.


Step 2: Identify Stakeholders

Because barriers to success are intertwined, it’s vital that the campus resources most closely associated with the barriers be identified. Those stakeholders can be invited to engage in a dialogue about how the institution can develop programming or address administrative structures to best serve first generation students. Representatives from units such as Admissions, Academic Advising, Faculty, Multicultural Life, Housing, Education Abroad/Career Services and Financial Aid can speak to each of the integrated barriers. Ideally, a number of these representatives should also identify as first generation students themselves.


Step 3: Compare Notes and ask questions

What do each of the representatives see as a challenge to first generation students? What data does the university have on first generation admission rates, GPAs, retention and completion? How many first generation students are accessing study abroad compared to the number of students who actually complete a semester or more abroad? Are there opportunities for programmatic collaboration between the units, and what small changes can be implemented to lower, if not erase, barriers?


Step 4: Devise an achievable plan

No one has a perfect solution to supporting first generation students. And it’s important the task force develops a plan that is appropriate to their institution, fits within the mission of the institution, well-articulated goals with measurable outcomes. Regular task force meetings and assigning responsibility is essential in making sure the team stay on track.  


Step 5: Advocate

Institutions are often strapped for resources, and individual units often jockey for access to personnel and financial resources in order to accomplish their goals. Through the work of the task force, in order to further advance the stated goals, a narrative needs to be shaped that will influence the highest levels of the institution of the importance of supporting first generation college students. For some divisions, retention and completion is a priority (finance), for others, access for all students (student life), or curricular integration of international education (academic affairs). Successful advocacy can lead to allocation of resources and further collaboration across units and the development of program models attractive to first generation students.

Experiential learning such as education abroad, internships, and undergraduate research are quickly becoming a necessary part of a college degree. The 21st century economy demands that college graduates enter the workforce with international experience[v]. The barriers that first generation students face for success in college are the same as those who may consider a semester abroad. Without a comprehensive effort to lower the barriers to overall success in college, the field of education abroad cannot possibly expect to increase access to first generation college students.

[i]Mangan, K. (2015, May 18). The challenge of the first-generation student. Retrieved from

[ii]First Generation College Students, Marquette University. Monday, October 19, 2015

[iii] Stephens, N., Hamedani, M., Dsetin, M. (2014). Closing the social-class achievement gap: A difference-education intervention improves first generation students’ academic performance and all students’ college transition. Psychological Science.

[iv]Supiano, B. (2014, October 9). When is a student ‘first generation’? Words fail us. Retrieved from

[v]Trooboff, S., Vande Berg, M., Rayman, J. (2008). Employer attitudes toward study abroad. Frontiers: Interdisciplinary journal of study abroad, Winter, 17-34. Retrieved from