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How to be an ally for first-generation students

Written by: Siobhán O’Brien
Published on: 26 Apr 2021

A first-generation student feeling isolated by her peers. Academics must be allies for first-generation students

Source: iStock

About a century ago, when I was interviewing for potential PhD programmes, one interviewer caught me off guard when he asked: “What do your parents do for a living?”

I was totally flummoxed. This was in the wake of the 2007-08 economic downturn, forcing early redundancy from “working class” jobs that were bound not to impress this particular professor. After an awkward pause, I told him they were on the dole. In hindsight, I should have responded firmly that the question was not relevant and probably reported him to HR, but that’s for another blog post.

More recently, the #firstgen movement arrived in our twitterverses in 2020, and – I will now admit – I did a little snort. First-generation university students? And, in some cases, first-generation PhD students? My initial reaction was that Ireland was different – everyone was poor in the 1960s, so it was a level playing field, right?

However, the power of the #firstgen movement is that it forces us to reflect on how our past may influence our behaviour and choices academically. Understanding this connection can give us a sense of command over the lack of confidence and impostor syndrome that many experience in universities.

As academics, we have a duty to be cognisant of how social background could affect the actions of students and colleagues. Importantly, as lecturers and supervisors, we can − whether we like it or not − influence whether social background becomes an obstacle for a student’s progression. Below, I reflect on my own experience to suggest ways we can aid social mobility.

Be approachable and available
It took almost two years before I really settled into university. Initially, I found the amount of information I was bombarded with overwhelming. I slowly learned from peers, watching as they confidently approached the professor after a lecture or − even more astonishingly – went to their office to clarify points. I felt lost yet lacked the confidence to confide in anyone who could help.

How we can help: I possibly ended up finishing my degree only thanks to the “open door” policy of my first-year calculus professor. A gaggle of us turned up one day with questions, and he patiently went through everything, probably resulting in my not failing that class. Another significant turning point came in my third and fourth year, when informal interaction between students and lecturers became the norm and fostered a sense of belonging.

Be understanding with time constraints
Here’s the ironic thing – free education is fantastic, but lack of a student loan often means there is no stipend. Therefore, if you want to eat or pay rent, you either need to have folks willing to pay their adult children pocket money or you need a part-time job. This widens the social mobility gap because more affluent students can devote more time to their studies.

How we can help: Be aware that no student wants to tell their supervisors they have to leave the lab early to go to work. It’s awkward, and they don’t want to be viewed as less motivated or serious. This can be overwhelmingly stressful for students as they try to fit it all in while simultaneously feeling like they are failing at everything. Be patient and understanding that without a part-time job they could not be there in the first place.

There are multiple routes to success
It seems that universities are now pushing summer internships before undergraduates have even set foot inside a lecture theatre. Internships are fantastic opportunities, but many are unpaid, and for some students this is completely unrealistic. Summer provides the only opportunity to work full time, save some money and pay off debts.

How we can help: There are multiple avenues to apply for funding to support unpaid internships, so ensure that students are aware of these opportunities and lend your support with applications if possible. One hour of our time can have a hugely positive influence on someone’s career.

It’s also important to stress that there are many routes to success: exposure to new disciplines can be achieved through departmental seminars; networking experience can be gained by meeting external speakers; and playing an active role in lab meetings can demonstrate determination and skills.

Exposure, exposure, exposure
A first-generation colleague recently told me that because her daughter grew up in a house with two academic parents, her daughter is more informed about higher education options and how it all works at the age of 11 than my colleague was at 30.

Furthermore, if a first-generation student already feels different among their peers, they might avoid scientific discussion for fear of “exposing” themselves as ill-informed. Too often, I have overheard academics scoff at “non-scientific” topics of conversation among students. This attitude squeezes out less affluent students by making them feel less capable of fitting in with the “system”.

How we can help: My first exposure to postgraduate degrees and academic research was through chatting to our lab demonstrators in freshman practical classes. Most of our demonstrators are PhD students, and strengthening this link between PhD students and undergraduate research could expose undergraduates to academic research in an applied setting.

Even more crucially, don’t be a conversation snob. Everyone has a right to unwind in their own way. The ivory tower is so far removed from the real world that we should be grateful for the two-way transfer of knowledge between academics and students. Years ago, an academic once told me he’d never heard of Beyoncé. Yes, I still think about this regularly.

I’m grateful that the #firstgen movement made me reflect on my own experiences as a student. Academics are from a variety of backgrounds and, rather than assuming the form of an academic caricature, we should celebrate our differences proudly. Diversity begets diversity, after all.

Siobhán O’Brien is a tenure-track fellow at the University of Liverpool and a BBSRC Discovery fellow. Her lab is focused on understanding the ecology and evolution of microbial communities.