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“You Never Become Fully Independent”: Family Roles and Independence in First-Generation College Students

Covarrubias et al., 2019 / Journal of Adolescent Research / August 2018

First-generation (FG) college students often confront cultural mismatches between their interdependent backgrounds and university contexts that promote independent norms. Past work has documented this mismatch with various methodologies (e.g., self-report, lab experiments, longitudinal designs), but behavioral explorations have been minimal. Thus, the current study examined students’ interdependent familial roles and the ways in which they enact either soft (e.g., self-expression) or hard (e.g., self-reliance) forms of independence. In-depth semi-structured interviews with 34 low-income, Latinx and Asian American FG students (25 females, 8 males, 1 other; mean age = 19.89, SD = 1.35) were conducted. Grounded theory analysis revealed six family role themes. Students described providing parents with emotional support and advocacy, language brokering, financial support, physical care, life advice, and heavy sibling caretaking. FG students also shared enacting four types of soft independence—including gaining freedom, becoming self-expressive, pursuing their individual interests, and becoming mature—and five types of hard independence—including being resilient, being self-reliant, being tough, being mature, and breaking tradition. These findings provide novel understandings of the lived experiences of FG students and insights on behaviors universities should recognize as valuable strengths in FG students.