First Generation Students Bring Special Perspectives to Truman

Entrance to Truman State University from Wikimedia Commons.

Truman State University is home to students of many races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations and backgrounds. One group of around 700 students on campus are first generation students who the McNair program and other entities at Truman are trying to better suit and accommodate.

A celebration for first generation students was held at Truman last October, and the turnout was overwhelmingly positive, kickstarting a larger conversation about how to help and recognize first generation students at Truman.

The McNair Program is a national program instituted by the Higher Education Act of 1986. There are currently over 150 McNair Programs nationwide at various public and private universities.

The goal of the McNair Program is to help first generation, low income and racial minority students move past undergraduate school to obtain research doctorate degrees.

Heather Cianciola, McNair Program project coordinator and chief investigator, said the McNair Program was originally created to add diversity to academia – since most people with research doctorates go on to become professors.

Cianciola said McNair is one of eight programs funded by the Higher Education Act of 1965, along with immersion programs for middle and high school students who would be first generation, low income or racial minorities.

Cianciola began working with the McNair Program in summer 2011, when she was an instructor. In 2015, she became interim project director and later received the full project director position. She has been working with first generation college students for the duration of that time, and she said she thinks first generation students bring experiences with them that differ from their non-first generation counterparts.

Cianciola said nationwide research on first generation students shows that there are lower graduation rates among first generation students, and they are more likely to come from lower income families. This research has also shown they do not perform as well on standardized tests and their average GPAs are lower than non-first generation students.

Cianciola said Truman has recently completed research concerning first generation students which has shown that first generation students at Truman have an average GPA at the same level as other students, but they graduate at lower rates. He also said many of them do not participate in undergraduate research because of financial struggle.

“[First generation students] tend to be a little more reticent to ask for help,” Cianciola said. “They tend to be less aware of the networks available to them and of how to approach faculty members of organizations or how to go after leadership positions or things that would benefit them in terms of social or cultural capital or things that would benefit them in the long run.”

Senior Jessie Wooldridge, an English major and first generation McNair student said they did their research on first generation students which has manifested into a bigger project.

Wooldridge said one day they were talking to McNair Program and Evaluation Coordinator Ryan Miller about first generation students and the McNair Program. Miller suggested to Wooldridge that they do their McNair research on first generation students.

To conduct their research, Wooldridge looked at first generation faculty and staff and — hoping to discuss the positives of being a first generation student — looked at cultural capital that that faculty possessed.

Through their research, Wooldridge discovered these faculty had an appreciation for intelligence outside of academia, meaning they valued skills outside of traditional knowledge.

The other cultural capital first generation students possessed was understanding that part of their identity. Wooldridge explained knowing the hardships that come with being a first generation student is helpful because it spreads awareness of the success first generation students can still have as well as helps first generation students take proactive measures in their learning.

Wooldridge is going to continue doing research on first generation students for their English degree, and they hope to continue developing their research sparked by the McNair program in a graduate school program.

“The McNair Program can only help so many students,” Wooldridge said. “I mean – there were only 20 of us, and so I’m doing this research to help students outside of what McNair can provide.”

While researching, Wooldridge is also working on establishing an organization for first generation students to build a community. Some goals of the organization would be to build and sustain a group of students who share similar experiences as well as setting up mentoring programs for those students. Additional goals would also include working with recruiters and university counseling to improve retention rates of first generation students throughout their college career. They said they also want to reach out to more high school students who would be first generation college students.

Wooldridge and their peers applied for a charter for their organization last spring semester but got turned down when members of the board thought such an organization was not necessary and would not retain members. Wooldridge said they will be reapplying for a charter this fall semester.

University President Sue Thomas was a first generation student herself and said that first generation students bring with them a special perspective to school because they have a different set of experiences and backgrounds.

Thomas encourages the sharing of ideas and histories to better understand one another and the world around us but warns that we should not get caught up in these differences that could divide the student body.