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I created an affinity group for first generation students at my graduate school. Shortly after, the school's diversity committee emailed the student government informing us that there would be a diversity committee panel on the issue of being first gen. It seems like sort of an informal lunch between students and faculty.

I am thinking there are two possible reasons the school is holding this meeting. 1) they are trying to look good by taking initiative before students start making noise or 2) the school cares deeply about the issue. I'm inclined to believe its reason 1 because the school took zero steps to contact me or any of my first gen acquaintances to see what help or resources we needed, and is only having a "first" discussion about this issue right after I created the group even though this is by no means a new issue.

At any rate, not sure the motives for the meeting matter except insofar as me knowing how much I can get the school to change its approach to this issue. In other words how much do they actually care about what I have to say and how do I hold them accountable to act on any requests I make? I have a bunch of (very actionable and easy) ideas - e.g. distributing surveys that ask students questions such as "are you first gen" and then having the school appropriately match an advisor/mentor - but is this the forum to express those ideas? If so, at what level of detail? What I really care about is just getting the school to do the things I want it to do. How much work is done in that meeting, and how do I follow up "behind the scenes"? How much leverage do I have as a student? Any advice appreciated!

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    What is a "first generation student"? – user9646 Mar 8 '18 at 7:54
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    @Najib Idrissi: This might mean being the first person in their "immediate family" (can be defined in several ways, but probably means siblings, 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, etc.) to have attended college (sometimes "have graduated college"), although context here suggests that "attended college" might be "attended graduate school" (but this seems unlikely because not clearing the "attended graduate school" hurdle could include more than half of the students). – Dave L Renfro Mar 8 '18 at 13:25
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    The definition @DaveLRenfro gives is the common meaning of the term in the US (except in my experience it omits siblings--someone whose older sibling is in college would still be a first-gen college student so long as their mutual parents hadn't attended/graduated from college). – 1006a Mar 8 '18 at 16:47
  • What sort of advisor/mentor relationships are you looking for? Professors who were also first-gen college students? That might be somewhat difficult, depending on your school. – Azor Ahai Mar 8 '18 at 17:38
  • @Fomite yes this is in the US. – Jazzie3 Mar 9 '18 at 4:52
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To make this first meeting effective, here are some considerations.

  • Identify the players on the faculty and administration side--people who might be at the meeting and others at the school.

    1. If your institution has first-gen resources for undergrads or other diversity resources, the people in charge of those could help your effort, and may be invited to the meeting.
    2. If your school (overall institution or your grad school) has a history of visible conflict around any kind of diversity, faculty and administration may reflect that history. Some might be resentful, while others may have learned and aim to be especially supportive.
    3. Faculty will not show up unless they care about this issue and/or want to curry favor with the administrators organizing it. They are likely to be good allies, though with limited time to devote.
  • Continue recruiting other students.

    1. Initial interest will shape everyone's perceptions.
    2. You will want to be able to transition leadership and not have everything depend on you forever. Even at the beginning, it's best if other students can share responsibility so you don't take away too much time from your studies.
    3. Accept allies wholeheartedly, but try to make sure they listen more than they talk. (The burden of organizing first-gen resources shouldn't just fall on first-gen students, if possible.)
    4. Instead of a survey before the meeting, I'd suggest a Facebook group or just an email. Spread the word about the lunch (free lunch!) and you can ask people to join the Facebook group or sign a Google doc or something if they're willing to share their first-gen status and give any thoughts of what they'd like to see.
      • This would accomplish similar things to a survey, while being more informal and building connections for future organizing.
      • The school probably has better resources to do a systematic survey, and they may even have some stats from the admissions process. If they turn out to be helpful, the administration will be able to do this part very easily.
  • I have read studies on first-gen college students and talked with colleagues who do research here. As you probably already know, navigating college is harder for people whose families can't provide specific knowledge. You may want to ask your institution for the following resources to address this.

    1. It can continue facilitating interactions between faculty and first-gen students, like this lunch. This can lead to informal mentoring and just more experience of faculty and first-gen students being familiar with each other.
      • Some of my professors were first-gen, and they would be great to have there.
      • Other profs may benefit from "practice." I remember at a conference dinner, when a professor asked a student, "Where do you summer?" The student replied, "Most summers I try to visit my family in Detroit." HUGE social class gap that they interacted nicely around, and hopefully the professor learned not to presume or to use "summer" as a verb.
    2. The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity is a fantastic resource for US universities that your school could subscribe to.
      • I believe the model is that the institution signs up EVERY faculty member (and/or postdoc, and/or grad student) as having access. Many resources are about demystifying tenure, doing productive research, and other things addressed here on SE. :)
      • Often, this fills knowledge gaps that students have for a variety of reasons, but that first-gen students (and others) often systematically have.
      • Politically and logistically, I find that to be an ingenious model, especially as it doesn't require anyone to create a boundary about what "counts" as first-gen or argue that they did not grow up with their educated parent, or that their parents are unfamiliar with the U.S. system of education, etc.)
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    I'd be interested in reading about what specific difficulties first-gen students find in the US: could you please share some titles of those studies? I come from a generation when virtually everybody was a first-gen student in my country (in my family, among twenty close relatives, only one uncle had a Master's degree, most of the others didn't even have a high-school diploma), but I cannot recall specific difficulties related to this. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 11 '18 at 11:31
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    There is so much research coming out but here are a few starting points: 1) pnpi.org/first-generation-students 2) alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/… 3) pellinstitute.org/publications-Moving_Beyond_Access_2008.shtml – Jazzie3 Mar 12 '18 at 2:21
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    This is the most useful paper but it is very long: papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2500832 In my own words, I would say that being first gen, specifically low income, in the US is a major cultural obstacle. Just one point is that today -- and I know you mention that you might be from an earlier generation, and I believe things are different now -- there are very few first gen low income students in competitive schools and it becomes very isolating (publicservice.fas.harvard.edu/news/…) – Jazzie3 Mar 12 '18 at 2:39
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    @Jazzie3 Thank you for the links, I'll have a look! – Massimo Ortolano Mar 12 '18 at 8:51
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    @MassimoOrtolano - When everybody is in the same boat, nobody is facing the problems alone. But if you were one of just a handful of students with no family with an academic background, then you'd stick out. – aparente001 Mar 14 '18 at 5:27
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We (and indeed you) clearly cannot read the minds of those who have called the meeting, however I'd like to suggest a third option:

Someone in the administration is definitely trying to do something, but because universities are large and cumbersome organizations, change takes time.

The best things you can do are heading to that meeting prepared (which you appear to have done) and with an open mind. Assume the intent is to have a productive meeting, but also one that likely won't have a great deal of actionable things come out of it. First meetings rarely do. Express that you've got ideas, and are willing to work with them. And find out who the people are who you should be talking to - if the meeting does seem like it's sincere, try to finish by identifying at the very least who you should talk to about "next steps".

In terms of leverage? Almost none. But that doesn't mean you can't get things done - university administrators are human beings, and they too care about things. For example, at my university, the problems of first generation students are taken quite seriously and we still struggle at times.

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We cannot divine the university's intent, or what the committee you're meeting with is capable of, at this point in time. But it's great that the university is being proactive in wanting to hear the concerns of your interest group. Act on your own initiative. Distribute that survey yourself, before the meeting is held, and find out what people who share your background want to tell the university. Act as their representative and read off some of their comments. The university will be happy to have an official representative, and maybe you can have your needs met as well.

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