By Nick Rocha – First generation students often face a multitude of academic and social challenges when they are transitioning into the college environment. A first-generation student is someone whose parents have not completed or obtained a four-year college degree. There is an increasing amount of research centered on the connection between social class and academic success, but there is a need for research that focuses on how identity formation strategies are challenged or sustained as students transition from high school to college. How might certain students socialize and form identities based on their experiences on campus? Does the approach students use in high school translate to the approach used in college?
When considering how students formulate identity about themselves, it is important to take into consideration the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and other statuses when attempting to examine patterns and connections. “Intersectionality thus provides a framework for understanding how multiple dimensions of identities affect experience, opportunities, and outcomes” (Wilkins, 2014). As we take each category and status into account, we often get different experiences, explanations, and approaches to identity formation. So for example a white lower-class first generational male will have a different strategy to define themselves as compared to a black lower-class first generational male.
Based on Amy Wilkin’s observations and interviews of first generational white and black men, the white students mentioned that they did not receive proactive support for their parents in regards to attending college. They were warmly supportive of whatever decision that the students made regarding occupational goals, even it if meant not attending college. They also employed a “blending in approach” to identity within high school. This tactic involved glossing over class differences between themselves and middle-class students; white lower-class students would engage in low-cost activities such as video games, playing Frisbee, and hiking in attempts to develop a social network of friends. They also avoided trouble such as drinking by changing their peer groups and engaging in sports.
This technique of “acting normal and blending in” translated well into the college atmosphere. The participants mentioned that they opted out of partying due to it feeling “immature” and being contrary to their academic goals. They mentioned that they were often bored and lonely due to avoiding social parties, but managed to establish alternative strategies for finding friends. They used their tactic of blending in to develop peer groups that were often academically focused and supportive of their identity as an academic learner.
For the first generation black students, they mentioned that their families’ prioritized education by moving to certain geographical areas in order to attend certain schools, enrolled their students into desegregation programs, or obtained scholarships for private schools. Of the students who were interviewed, many of them attended high schools that were predominantly white and as a result their identity was tied to their race and their conception of black masculinity. Sports were a major status indicator for blacks. “Sports provide an adult-sanctioned way for boys to demonstrate masculine competitiveness, toughness, and physical prowess, without necessarily compromising academic commitment” (Wilkins, 2014, p.181). Since black masculinity was limited in predominantly white schools, it was considered valuable and rare. First generation black males utilized the approach of “standing out” within their high schools; they were not coerced by their peers to fit into the black masculinity identity and this allowed them to integrate well within their social network. This changed drastically when they attended college however.
Both groups experienced social hardships during the transition into college culture. Black first generation students, however, struggled to implement their strategies to form and sustain their personal identity in college. Black students who do not play sports are often socially invisible as black masculine men. “They are marginalized because they do not fulfill peer expectations of youthful black masculinity” (Wilkins, 2014, p.183). Black first generation men struggle to find social spaces in which they can express their own identity without being coerced by their peers to fit into the adolescent black masculinity stereotype and often found managing relationships with their peers to be emotionally exhausting. Race became a more impactful factor in identity development for black first generation men compared to their white counterpart. One student mentioned that all of his peers would talk to him about football even though they were in an engineering class and they ignored his attempts to talk about engineering with them.
Examining the characteristics and strategies utilized by both white and black first generation men provides insight into the challenges and experiences that first generation students face when transitioning from the high school environment to the college environment. More research should be conducted to examine identity strategies when social class is taken into account and when student’s high school environments are primarily minority students. “Standing out” may not be a tactic used by black students when their school environment is not primarily white.
Additional research should also examine the differences between gender and how identity development might be different. According to Chambliss and Takacs (2014), student friendships are critical to student retention. Educators and social scientists should take a closer look into how identities are reinforced and challenged in college and how a student’s peer group might influence the strategies and techniques that first generation students take in developing their own identity.