Gatekeepers or greeters? We must demystify university for first-gen students

Stone Meredith gives advice on using positive introductory phrases and how this can help first-generation students navigate university

Stone Meredith's avatar
22 Feb 2022
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The way university teachers and lecturers speak to first-generation students can make a huge difference to how they get on in higher education

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Colorado State University Global

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It’s our duty to teach more inclusively − online, in person or hybrid
Students want feel heard, valued, seen and represented

For college instructors, little is more professionally satisfying than watching first-generation students become part of the larger academy. Over 20 years, I’ve witnessed thousands of first-gen students graduate in an online environment allegedly tailored to their time and access limits. But is that really true? Teaching content and measuring student success using ubiquitous rubrics is not our main mission. Before we start teaching, we must initiate first-gen students into what it means to be academic. Simple shifts in vocabulary, from punitive to positive, generate positive initiations built on trust and authentic support.

For first-gen students, navigating the rarely intuitive education landscape alone, without the guidance of parents or family, must be intimidating. Like many of my colleagues, I don’t have lived experience of what this feels like. So, how do we reach those students, get them to see a bigger picture and realise that bigger picture is their picture, too?

First, we shift our vocabulary and mindset. Imagine arriving at the border of a new country. There’s a guard, a gatekeeper deciding who gets to drive in. Most of us are naturally nervous, careful not to speed or say something stupid. Greeting the teacher can probably feel a lot like that to first-gen students. A gatekeeper is defined by Merriam Webster’s dictionary as (1) One that tends or guards a gate (2) A person who controls access. But we want control to be handed to our students, right?

What if the gatekeeper becomes a greeter? I often start a class with first-gen learners with a conversation on the difference between gatekeeper and greeter. According to that same dictionary, greeter is not even a word. But we can find a definition of the word in transitive verb form: to address with expression of kind wishes upon arrival or meeting.

Now, imagine pulling up to that same country. The guard greets you with a smile and is glad to see you. She understands that the process can seem mysterious for those arriving for the first time. She acknowledges there are lots of rules, some she doesn’t even agree with, but she adds that there’s nothing to worry about – she knows the rules, and she’ll help you understand them, too.  In this scenario, the greeter acknowledges that she knows more, but she’s going to use that extra knowledge to help, not to limit or intimidate.

The way we offer feedback helps us become greeters instead of gatekeepers. Adopting positive introductory phrases can foster first-gen buy-in to longstanding academic expectations. Here are some examples:

1. I understand why you…

This lead-in works for big-picture items such as why someone submitted the assignment to the wrong folder. Stating that you understand why the student made a choice shows that you understand the effort that went into the student’s thinking. When students feel understood, like anyone, they are more likely to be open to growth ideas that follow.

2. This was a really hard task…

Letting the student know that the work you are grading was difficult by your standards shows them that (a) they are not alone in finding the process taxing and (b) you appreciate the effort required to complete the task.

3. You’re not alone in needing to grow in this area…

Often, a student feels like the only one who doesn’t know the answer. When a teacher acknowledges that many people have a hard time with a task, the student sees that the larger group must also work to get better.

4. You know what works/worked for me? 

This confessional approach shows the student that you, too, have to work hard to be good at the content you’re teaching. Sharing personal strategies shows the students that (a) you have been at their level and (b) there are tangible methods to generate growth.

5. Let’s give your ideas the platform they deserve…

Showing students that you value and see merit in their ideas can open their minds beyond embarrassment or exhaustion. Students can then look at your tools for a larger goal – to give their good ideas the platform they deserve.

6. Here’s a handout that might really make sense for you…

There are hundreds of online writing centres out there offering tips on everything from thesis statements to citation. Simply type in the topic and online writing centre in a Google search. Find sources that you like for the common errors you see while grading and share the links in your feedback. Guiding students to specific handouts shows them a larger world of free resources to utilise beyond your course.

Our students are not here to serve higher education; higher education is here to serve students. And teachers are the pivotal instruments in realising that mission. Engaging a greeter’s voice helps us to be honest and welcoming for first-generation students on their brave journey into higher education and beyond.

Stone Meredith teaches college-level composition, literature and philosophy courses at Colorado State University Global. She is actively involved with the university’s Student Veterans Organisation and is the founder of the Clever Chicas Project, an open-source project promoting cultural literacy through a series of educational initiatives.

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