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First-Generation Institute Highlights Social Class and Institutional Responsibilities

While visiting the financial aid office as a first-year undergraduate student, dr. becky martinez conversed with a fellow peer about his family and hometown.

After describing himself as a “regular guy,” he then proceeded to pull out a checkbook and ask, “how much will the next three and a half years be so that my parents don’t have to pay the difference in tuition?”

“I about fell on the floor because I was figuring out how to pay for the rest of that semester,” said martinez, a facilitator at the Social Justice Training Institute.

dr. becky martinezdr. becky martinez

Social class identity was one of many topics discussed during the First-Generation Institute hosted by the University of Minnesota’s (UMN) College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) last week.

Those social class identities translate to three areas of origin, current or felt class and attributed.

“All of those pieces are part of our identity,” said martinez. “What is really important is that they are not working in silo. They are working at the same time.”

For many participants, the idea of social class was associated with an individual’s income and socioeconomic status. However, there are many components including clothing, language or accents, network of people, diet, healthcare and educational attainment.

“We have to start paying attention to the ways that social class play itself out beyond just the money space,” said martinez. “We are here to pull the thread in the tapestry. Pulling the thread around class in the tapestry around identity, intersections, diversity, equity and inclusion.”

During their session, Dr. Sonja Ardoin, assistant professor in the department of human development and psychological counseling at Appalachian State University, and Martinez, highlighted their research around student experiences with social class in higher education.

In conversations with first-generation undergraduate students, the themes of complexity of identities, straddling class, code switching, intersections of identities and social class being “invisible, unspoken and misunderstood” emerged.

On the other hand, discussions with graduate students focused on community responsibility with the concept of paying it forward, racial identity and educational privilege.

With institutions not originally being designed for first-generation college students, Ardoin emphasized the need to “harness all of their assets,”  including familial capital. Rather than seeing families as “inconsequential” to students’ pathways, they should be perceived as partners, she said.

Dr. Sonja ArdoinDr. Sonja Ardoin

“Sometimes we view families in adversarial way on college campuses or we make the assumption that first-generation families or poor-working class families don’t want their students to be with us…,” said Ardoin. “What I’ve seen is that their families do support them. They support them in the ways that they are able. They show up, they want to help them in the capacities they have.”

With first-generation students facing a number of barriers in college, COVID-19 has become an added stressor. In online learning environments, many students lack private spaces to complete coursework or are unable to afford Wi-Fi.

To adapt, faculty members should record their lectures and create flexible class attendance policies as many students hold family responsibilities at home. Additionally, to cater towards students in different time zones, alternative exam schedules should also be offered, said Dr. Chia-Chen Tu, interim training director and staff psychologist at UMN.

Mental health resources have also been readily needed by students during the pandemic.

To address the emotional wellbeing of its students, UMN began offering groups and workshops focused on student development and wellness rather than using “diagnostic terminology.” Additionally, as a way to create a more equitable system, Tu recommended recruiting counselors with multi-lingual backgrounds or experience working with BIPOC students.

“We want to support students who might not necessarily feel comfortable going to traditional mental health facilities to meet their own needs,” she said.

Dr. Jenny Steiner, coordinator of student academic success services at UMN has found the virtual environment to be a space of going “straight to business.” However, faculty members should make a conscious effort to check in with their students. Additionally, they can also encourage students to take breaks from the computer.

While teaching, Steiner aims to “generate spaces of connection” by having her students spend more time in break out rooms rather than a lecture space.

“It’s not a one-for-one,” she said. “The way you taught in face-to-face is not the way we need to be going about things online.”

To support first-generation students at the institutional level, students’ own experiences need to be validated through programming such as offering emergency supplies, career-related workshops and mentoring programs, according to Tu.

Additionally, Dr. Michael C. Rodriguez, interim dean of CEHD, emphasized the need to turn the admissions process “upside down.”

“Instead of spending so much time and effort on college readiness, let us spend a little more time and effort getting colleges ready for students,” he said. “Students that we need to lead the world for future students. And those students are unquestionably first-generation.”

Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected].

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