posted February 22, 2010

Book Considers Needs of First-Generation College Students

 A book edited by Dr. Teresa Heinz Housel of the Hope College communication faculty is designed to help college and university educators better understand and meet the needs of students who are the first generation in their family to pursue higher education and often face unique additional challenges as a result.

Heinz Housel, who is an assistant professor of communication, and Dr. Vickie Harvey, associate professor of communication studies at California State University-Stanislaus, are the editors of "The Invisibility Factor:  Administrators and Faculty Reach Out to First-Generation College Students," published in January by BrownWalker Press of Boca Raton, Fla.

"This book responds to an increasing student population that is all too often underserved and unrecognized," Heinz Housel and Harvey note in the book's opening chapter.  "First-generation students (or FGS, whose parents do not have a bachelor's or an associate degree) are enrolling at American colleges and universities at steadily increasing rates.  According to a 2007 study by the University of California-Los Angeles's Higher Education Research Institute, nearly one in six freshmen at American four-year institutions are FGS."

Heinz Housel and Harvey, who met at a professional meeting a few years ago, pursued the book project in part because of their own experiences as first-generation college students.  Heinz Housel, for example, found college culture and expectations a major adjustment as she made the transition from the rural public school she had attended to Oberlin College, her undergraduate institution.

"In college I sometimes experienced a nameless anxiety.  My wealthier classmates all seemed to have assumed experiences such as international travel, knowledge of the fine arts, and prep school educations," she wrote.  "Even though I was bright, I struggled to catch up academically with my peers during my first year of college.  The experience perplexed and frustrated me because I studied diligently."

Heinz Housel added, "It took me a year or so to catch up. But the experience of straddling two different worlds never goes away."

Their own experiences helped inspire their interest in the topic, but the book reflects scholarship that has documented the experiences of first-generation students much more broadly, demonstrating a variety of ways that such students enter college with more barriers to achievement than their non-FGS peers.  Many first-generation students, Heinz Housel and Harvey note, feel socially, ethnically and emotionally marginalized on campus.  Their parents may be less involved in their education.  They often come from lower-income families and have financial worries that middle-class and upper-class students lack.  They may lack reading, writing and oral communication skills.  They are often unfamiliar with the unwritten social rules at work within the academic setting.  Growing up, they have often lacked opportunities such as overseas travel or exposure to cultural arts that wealthier students have experienced.

"The Invisibility Factor" is designed for college and university educators who work with first-generation students.  Comprised of a series of essays, it reviews the existing literature on first-generation students; outlines the barriers to college success faced by first-generation students; updates the existing literature by introducing new and cutting-edge first-generation research; and recommends solutions.

The book is organized into two sections.  The first examines class's contextual influence on academic performance and culture transition; discusses the challenges of teaching first-generation college students; and outlines concrete strategies for creating respectful, collaborative and productive learning environments.  The second section focuses on specific and creative ways in which universities and colleges can improve institutional, social and academic support for first-generation students.

"As more students attend college in today's economy, college and universities will need to effectively serve this often invisible population," Heinz Housel said. "This book aims to ease their cultural transition into academe."