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John Harvard's Journal

First-Gen Inclusion and Belonging

January-February 2021

Portrait of Rachel Gable, author of new book on first-generation students at elite colleges

Rachel Gable

Photograph by Harvard Magazine/JC


Rachel Gable

Photograph by Harvard Magazine/JC

Among other findings, Harvard’s 2019 “pulse survey,” the foundation for much of the University’s current work on diversity and inclusion, revealed pronounced gaps between first-generation students and almost every other cohort in their degree of comfort within the community. In response to the baseline prompt, “I feel like I belong at Harvard,” just 59 percent of students whose parents had a middle-school education or less agreed; the figure was just 68 percent among those whose parents had high-school degrees. In contrast, among students, faculty, and staff members as a whole, 77 percent agreed—including 74 percent of students (see https://pulse.harvard.edu/results).

A significant, research-based contribution to understanding how best to include these first-to-college students (as undergraduates, and perhaps even when they pursue graduate or professional education) is now available. The Hidden Curriculum: First Generation Students at Legacy Institutions (Princeton), by Rachel L. Gable, Ed.D. ’16, draws on her pioneering research among two cohorts of Harvard and Georgetown undergraduates. Now director of institutional effectiveness at Virginia Commonwealth University, Gable meticulously examined the experiences of those who are the first in their families to attend college, and “continuing-generation” peers who have college-educated family members, as they entered and proceeded through those two selective institutions. Her more than four years of work, reported in “Mastering the ‘Hidden Curriculum’” (November-December 2017, page 18), provides insights into their higher education just as Harvard and its peers make increasingly concerted, and successful, efforts to attract, admit, and enroll more first-generation and low-income students (an often-used acronym is FLI)—and become increasingly aware that those may be only the first steps in such students’ success.

As Gable writes:

Every educational context has its hidden curriculum, and to identify it one may look to those for whom the educational context in question initially seems unfamiliar, surprising, or strange. At elite, highly selective universities for whom a sizable proportion of their undergraduate classes are graduates of feeder schools and the children of alumni, first-generation college students who have little to no prior experience with such forms of education may offer crucial insights into the form and function of the hidden curriculum.

Navigating those unfamiliar, informal norms and expectations can be offputting, to say the least—and in the worst cases, can impede the success of students newly brought into such communities. Conversely, elite schools obviously have an opportunity, and often the means, to become more aware of such challenges, and to address them for the benefit of first- and continuing-generation students alike. In her final chapter, Gable outlines effective means of doing so, based on what she learned during her research.

Transitions to college. Many students told Gable that an elite college was not part of their life plan, and that they had in fact applied on a whim, never expecting to be accepted. Accordingly, they looked forward to the opportunity to visit campus before enrolling (with financial aid to do so where necessary)—on flexible timetables that would accommodate their job schedules. Workshops with local alumni or online orientations, focusing on college expectations, would be welcome, the students reported—as would efforts to include them in preorientation experiences with their fellow students-to-be. (FLI students typically participate in outdoor or service programs at lower rates than continuing-generation peers.)

Beyond these foundations, the FLI cohort—many of whom had not traveled before, or dined in stately halls, or met many people from the diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, or economic groups they were about to join on campus—emphasized the magnitude of the geographic, architectural, and demographic changes they were about to experience at college, and sought ways to prepare. (Assistant professor of education Anthony Abraham Jack has explained the differences in experience and preparation among FLI students who come to elite colleges from elite preparatory schools, versus those who arrive from what are often under-resourced public schools; see “Adjacent but Unequal,” March-April 2019, page 26.) The affected students told Gable that everything from sensitive peer mentoring to more helpful, descriptive signage and diverse campus tour groups could help them find their footing.

Finally, given that “a higher percentage of first-generation students arrive feeling less prepared for college than their continuing-generation peers,” the FLI students were supportive of pre-enrollment orientations that equip them to deal with the sheer intensity of college-level learning. Georgetown runs a multiweek FLI summer academic immersion (as do Princeton and Yale; see the 2017 article cited above). Harvard, so far, has declined to follow that path—but half the first-generation College students in Gable’s study suggested such programming would be of interest.

Academic experiences. The students Gable studied were highly motivated, but often felt unprepared and often reported feeling unconfident in their first year or two. Preorientation programming, they felt, could help them cope with the vast, unfamiliar array of courses, disciplines, and possible career paths. Early guidance on how to speak in class, use office hours, manage time, and cope with stress all arose as examples of productive “proacademic” support (with obvious application for all students). FLI students and their families were also likely to be far less familiar with learning experiences such as internships, study abroad, or research stints with faculty members. Obviously, institutions can respond by actively extending such opportunities, and overcoming financial obstacles. More broadly, FLI students craved access to academic mentors.

Social experiences. FLI students “were more likely to express concerns about social and personal integration, to discuss financial barriers to social life on and off campus, and to express complex misgivings around belonging at elite universities,” Gable reports. Overcoming such problems requires everything from encouraging participation in extracurricular activities (and attaining leadership roles) as part of the college experience, to effecting what she describes as “a reduced focus on money in social life” on campuses and making first-generation students’ parents feel welcome and included, too. Finally, and not surprisingly, all the students expressed the “urgent need” for more frequent, meaningful opportunities to talk about race, gender, ideology, class, and privilege, in the interest of learning from one another.

Harvard, Georgetown, and similar institutions are working on all these issues—in some instances quite successfully. But their commitment to becoming more diverse and attracting more first-generation and low-income students will require extending their efforts. Particularly on the last point—bringing different kinds of young people together, and creating the means for them to learn from one another—the goal is among the highest aspirations of any excellent academic community. As Gable puts it, such “deliberation holds pride of place in America’s campus cum forum and town square.” 

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