Unity and teamwork concept as a business metaphor for joining a partnership as diverse ropes connected together as a corporate symbol for cooperation and working collaboration.Last week, I released a blog titled “Make a difference for under-resourced college students.” In that blog post, we discussed how financial aid is a major barrier for first-generation, under-resourced students. This week, I would like to review the shifts in personal relationships that inevitably occur when people try to make changes.

Relationships provide supports

As students enter college, they change their relationships with some people and leave others behind altogether. This is especially challenging for students from under-resourced backgrounds because when you don’t have the money to buy solutions for your problems, you rely on people. When relationships are threatened, it’s scary. This discomfort is compounded by all the features of the college experience that are essentially foreign and alien for under-resourced students. If the only people they trust to help them in this new experience  are ”back home,” they’re not likely to make it.

First-Year Experience (FYE) courses are a common strategy to get students integrated and assimilated on campus. Interestingly, the Student Voice survey supported by Kaplan found that first-gen students ranked FYE courses in the bottom of a list of programming they want prioritized. Why? So much effort goes into the design of FYE courses, so why are they so not-loved?  I think it’s because those courses tend to be contextualized within the “hidden rules” of middle class (work, achievement, proactive time and money management, respect for authority, etc.). Under-resourced students however, are coming from an environment driven by relationships. For these students, the FYE course further reinforces their sense of “otherness.” Thus, we are unintentionally “othering” the very students with the strongest need for a sense of belonging.

First-gen students say they want campuses to prioritize opportunities specifically for students like them. They want to belong. Having relationships as a driving force means that students are pretty good at building relationships. How might you use that strength? What intentional opportunities do you offer students to build true peer friendships? The longer they’re in college, the less they’ll have in common with their friends back home, so these new friendships with students from similar backgrounds on a similar path are really critical for success.

The Student Voice survey also showed students’ desire to connect with first-gen faculty, staff, and alumni. Given such opportunities, students can immediately apply an existing strength (relationship building) to new challenges (acquiring mentors and building professional networks). Openly and explicitly discussing the what, why, and how of developing that sort of bridging social capital demystifies it and puts the students in control.

I was curious to see that while first-gen students reject the typical FYE course, they want campuses to prioritize courses specific to first-generation students. This is exactly the rationale behind the Investigations into Economic Class in America curriculum I co-authored with Philip Devol. Investigations is designed to put groups of under-resourced students into the role of knowledge creator by using their expertise to solve the navigational issues and transitions presented by the college experience. Relationships are integral, and opportunities for acquiring bridging and bonding social capital are made explicit.

None of these things are particularly difficult to do (well, introducing new curriculum can be), but they do require understanding and empathy, and effort informed by both. I’ve found this work to energize and attract like-minded collogues with a bias toward action. Later this fall, I’m looking forward to another opportunity to lead the College Achievement Alliance training, where we will take a deep dive into the effect economic environments have on college students and strategies to help them succeed. I hope you can join us for a dynamic peer-to-peer learning event.

Learn more by participating in two upcoming training options: Understanding and Engaging Under-Resourced College Students Workshop, September 16, and College Achievement Alliance Trainer Certification, starting October 5.