On Being the First: The Role of Family in the Experiences of First-Generation College Students

Capannola & Johnson / Journal of Adolescent Research / December 2020

The aim of this study was to explore family relationship experiences of first-generation college students (FGCS) as they transition to and persist through college. The sample includes eight undergraduate FGCS (aged 18–22). Seven participants identified as female, and one identified as Questioning. Participants’ descriptions of their social class ranged from “poor” to “upper middle class.” Four participants identified as White; others identified as White and Mexican, White and Hispanic, African American, and Mixed Race (White and Black). Participants for this study were recruited from a large public university in the Southeastern United States. Researchers used a qualitative phenomenological design. Following approval from the Institutional Review Board, data were collected through in-depth interviews. Data were analyzed using inductive thematic analysis guided by Structural Symbolic Interactionism. Parents, despite lacking college experience, offered supports, both instrumental (educational opportunities; monthly financial assistance) and emotional (encouraging calls; frequent visits), which students considered essential to their success. Many participants also stated that setting an example and forging a path for younger siblings helped to motivate them to persevere through hardships. Strength-based approaches are necessary when developing programs for and research on FGCSs and their families.