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Tag: first generation students

Pathways-ED: Foundations of success

Stuart Middleton
9 June 2011

I failed with some style in my first year at university. My twin brother and I were the first in our family to attend university and we took failure in our stride just as easily as we took success. Oh well, that is what happens we supposed. We bounced back and I have long since described the four year approach to the first three year degree as strategic and based on the view that allowing the concrete to set well in the foundations led to many a good building.

It is a complex business being the first. My subject choices through secondary school were relatively random and the only assistance I got at home was a single comment at the beginning of the third year secondary when my Mum said that “Dad wonders if you should be taking a subject that is related to getting a job.” This was when I determined that I would do music as a subject – at that point the only music I had was what was learned in a brass band having missed out on tuition on the bagpipes for various reasons which would have allowed us to follow in our father’s footsteps or is that fingerprints (with grace notes)?

I can recall no discussion about careers around the dinner table or indeed about subject choice. We selected subjects on the basis of what we thought we could manage and what we thought we might like. So Form 5, the School Certificate year and here I was taking English, mathematics, Latin, Music and French. I passed School Certificate in the days when you needed 200 marks in your best four subjects including English with 32 marks to spare. I wondered if I should perhaps ease back a little to avoid burnout.

Latin got dropped in subsequent years. So when it came to university, subject choice for the first year was based on what? Well that was simple; I wanted to go to the new fledging university in Hamilton (still a branch of Auckland University and only in my second year to become the University of Waikato) and had no appetite for leaving Hamilton at that point. So I chose subjects from the literal handful that they offered – French, English and History, declining to do geography. Yes, that’s it folks when it came to choosing university subjects in Hamilton in 1964!

It was in History where I came unstuck. Our Mother was very interested in history but it was New Zealand history and there I was becoming acquainted with Japanese, German and US history. And having not been taught at school to write a history essay my efforts were what might be described as hesitant. I blame no-one for this because it simply was how things were.

You see, there was never any doubt about both the job I was headed towards and the fact that I would get one. I had applied for and secured what was called in those days a Teaching Studentship – you got paid wages to go to university to be a teacher. Yes someone decided that at the age of 17 I was likely to be satisfactory teacher which was either an act of faith or a sign of desperation for teachers which were in very short supply in the 1960’s. We were bonded year for year to teach at the end of our education and training.

So it was with an incomplete degree that I headed off to teachers college in Auckland. I arrived late to be given a stern talking to by the principal of the day (I had been completing National Service in the army so he was on shaky grounds). I was given a ticking off by a respected principal of a prestigious school when I went there on teaching practice – what do you think of coming here with an incomplete degree? My suggestion that he should think of it as a BA -1 was clearly not a path to pursue. At the teachers college I was advised sternly (for these were pretty stern days) that I must enroll in Education at Auckland University. I could see no sense in this as I was at Teachers College where I had a not unreasonable expectation that they would deal with Education on the way through. I enrolled in Anthropology 1.

Of all the papers I did, these were the best. This was the only time in my first degree that New Zealand was mentioned. Maori Studies had progressed only as far as appointing a lecturer and Anthropology dealt with those topics. Dr Ranganui Walker taught a course that introduced us to dimensions of Maori, both modern and ancient, that my education had studiously declined to do up to that point. Rev. Bob Challis taught a course on Pacific Islanders in New Zealand and opened our eyes to the phenomenon of migration to New Zealand. Dr Les Groube in the physical anthropology course took us up to Orakei Basin for an archaeological dig on the pa site there. And there was a course on Aboriginal society in Australia. This stuff was close to home and excited me more than anything else I had studied. There was also a course on monarchies in African societies that I suppose we did because of a lecturer’s PhD studies.

It was the only paper in my first degree in which I scored an A pass. Finishing on a high note has always been a good philosophy in study as well as sport and most other things!

By the end of my first degree I no longer thought of myself as a first generation student. Twelve of the fourteen members from the next generation of our family completed a university degree. We simply expected them to succeed.

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Helping the first to finish

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.9, 13 March 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

Overseas they are starting to use the term “First Generation Student” instead of the “First in Family” label that we have become familiar with in New Zealand, This describes those students who go on to postsecondary education but who have no parent who went past high school.

We have known that this phenomenon is important and that the impact a successful First Generation Student has on other siblings and future generations of the family is profound. Get one child through from such a setting and the family is changed forever. What we have not known so clearly is just why this presents such a challenge to us.

A recent survey from North America drills down into the issues and comes to a conclusion that suggests that we should be able to address this issue in a positive manner.

Conventional wisdom has always been that it is the educational aspirations of First Generation Students that is the factor that limits performance and persistence at the postsecondary level. New Zealand is the third from the bottom of the OECD in terms of the proportion of students who enter a tertiary programme and leave without at least a first tertiary degree. (Only the United States of America and Italy are worse.) So persistence is a wider issue than merely that which affects First Generation Students. With them, therefore, there must be other factors and there is a growing body of opinion that aspirational factors are only part of the picture.

Certainly by the end of high school, there is evidence that First Generation Students have “lower” aspirations when measured in comparison to other students. But there is not clear evidence that this is the result of having lower ambition, or having a lower regard for the importance of education.

It is more likely that at behind this apparent brake that is placed on progression from secondary to postsecondary education is a simple question of lack of information. When parents have had no experience of postsecondary education and therefore of the transition between secondary and postsecondary education, students are less likely to develop a pathway that will take them there. Nor are they likely to develop a realisation that they lack the knowledge to do so. Educational institutions do not by and large focus on the First Generation Students as a category of students that requires specific and early interventions. Some might not even know who they are!

This suggests that there is nothing inherently handicapping in this situation since it should be possible to provide the information. The condition of First Generation Students should therefore be seen less as an intrinsic or insurmountable disadvantage and more as a mere lack of information and role models. We ought to be able to address this issue by providing the information.

That begs the question of whether role models (as in for instance parents who have been educated beyond high school) are important and whether others can perform this function. Well there are no substitute for parents so it would take a pretty radical intervention to adequately substitute a role model for a parent. No, it will have to happen outside the home and is probably the school.

Of course having an adequate level of academic preparation is also essential but that is why education institutions exist. Ensuring that students are enrolled in courses that contribute to this is critical. There is evidence that First Generation Students enrol in courses that are less rigorous and even, especially in the USA, courses that are simply not able to have them qualify for progression into college or university. Similar suggestions have been made that this is also the case here in New Zealand.

Providing knowledge has a deceptively simple look about it. But it is not that simple at all. Knowledge about education, the pathways through it and where they go, start early in a home and are cumulative. It is information that is internalised not simply a brochure that is read at the point of decision-making. The excitement generated by starting school after several years of quality early childhood education build on engagement into an ethic that sees reward in early success that underpins a capacity to develop and sustain long term goals. But where these cannot be nurtured and cultivated by parents who often through no fault of their own, simply doesn’t happen. Not without intervention and who, in such a setting, is to do this?

It is not only about what happens before the point of school leaving is reached. After that, when a First Student Generation has got across the divide into a postsecondary institution, the experience they face will be different from other students. Studies from the USA report that these students are less likely to live on campus, to develop relationships with lecturers and staff (who they do not see as being concerned about their progress) and they will work in jobs earning money off campus. As a result they do not develop strong relationships with their fellow students nor do they engage in campus activity.

Now if we look beyond the USA characteristics of these findings, we can translate these findings into questions about New Zealand students who are First Generation Students. Do they tend to live at home rather than amongst other students? Do they develop a more distant relationship with staff? Are New Zealand staff members interested in their progress? Do the realities of student finances force students from such a background into work that interferes with study?

It is a vexed question, this business of getting First Generation Students into postsecondary. A recent study of the topic came to the conclusion that an institution of higher education cannot change the lineage of its students. But it can implement interventions that increase the odds that first-generation students “get ready,” “get in,” and “get through” by changing the way those students view college and by altering what they do after they arrive.

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