Explaining the experience of first-generation college students is a task that many of us quickly deflect if at all possible. Just because a subject can be classified as “well, every situation is so different” does not mean that we cannot try. A few years back, a hall director I worked for needed me to come up with a first-generation college student (FGCS) program for her resident assistant staff. After some thought, I came up with the following, relatively quick program:
Two (or more) sheets of paper
Pencils (preferably the stencil pencil kind)
Or use a whiteboard/chalkboard
(Groups should be 5 or less/group)
1. Design two like house outlines (basic blueprints with basic room options)
2. On back of each, list:
Upstairs bathroom (shared between the two bedrooms)
Oven, fridge, sink, pantry, island, counters, cupboards, dishwasher
Sofa, couch, TV, coffee table, plants (x3)
Soap and towels
Bed, armoire (x2), treasure chest, nightstand (x2)
Repeat for spare bedroom (add a desk)
Designate 2 “parents”
Divide group into (two) equal halves
Parent 1 = you know the ins-and-outs of home building. Feel free to help with all aspects of the basic design. Give pointers but allow for choices!
Parent 2 = you try to help with basic design but have no prior experience. Accidentally, you give the group bad advice and misguided direction. Five minutes into the activity, you get frustrated and leave.
Allow for 15-20 minutes for groups to finalize their houses.
Once completed, ask the following questions (plus your own):
- How did the “parents” help/hurt?
- What were the difficult decisions?
- Why did you place/label each room where/what?
- What are the differences between groups?
- How does this relate to first generation college students?
- Parents who can help/ parents who are inexperienced
- Some decisions are made without understanding
- Communication between student-home is stressed
- Transitioning as a freshman becomes immediately more difficult
- Does FGCS correlate with low socio-economic status (SES)*?
Treat this as a basic start to get the discussion/training session started. The point of the project is to metaphorically show students that matriculating through a successful college career is similar to building an efficient house— it helps to have an experienced architect. However, it takes student leaders and student affairs professionals to make sure that each student who does not have an experienced parental architect is aware of the plethora of resources offered by their university.
Remember, first-generation college students (FGCS) and students of low socioeconomic status (SES) are not necessarily correlated and should be understood as separate but equally important variables when further understanding our student populations.
Tyler Martin recently completed his M.Ed. in Higher Education and is seeking a position in Student Affairs.