Partnering with First in Family students to realise their university ambitions

First Gen. A trailblazer; a person who is among the first generation in their family to attend higher education.

There is something special about being the first. First on the moon, first female prime minister and being among the first in your family to attend university but it’s not always easy.

At UOW it is estimated that more than 27 per cent of our students are the First in Family (FiF) to go to university. The Transition and Engagement Team within PVC(S) has kicked off the development of the First Gen Program at UOW for the first time.

This Program seeks to engage with this growing cohort of students and intends to partner with FiF students as they transition into university and strive to achieve their higher education goals.

FiF students are understood to have additional obstacles impacting on their educational participation, and challenges which arise often related to not having access to a knowledgeable other who can guide them in unpacking ‘insider’ knowledge within universities (O’Shea, 2018).

A large number of FiF students are believed to come from equity backgrounds and are underrepresented in higher education. These compounding invisible barriers can weaken a sense of belonging to the university and evoke a feeling of being the outsider.

The First Gen Program seeks to demystify concepts of higher education, develop a sense of belonging and build relationships, forming the opportunity for students to have a guide-on-the-side. Importantly, the Program will also provide accessible support, resources and information for family members, with a focus on being developed in consultation with current FiF students.

The program kicked off on 17th of January, with the inaugural First Gen Celebration Afternoon Tea attended by over 130 commencing FiF first year students who were joined by their close family and friends. FiF UOW staff, academics, alumni and UOW students formed a panel at the event giving attendees the opportunity to hear from and ask questions, be recognised for their achievement and form stronger connections with other students, staff and the UOW community.

Other First Gen activities in development for 2019/2020 include a guide-on-the-side resource, mentoring opportunities, and tailored communication including current student stories and staff development workshops.

First in Family Research

Key to the development of the program is the work and research of Professor Sarah O’Shea.

Sarah is a teaching/research academic in the School of Education who has worked over the last 25 years to ensure that Australia’s university students can remain as diverse and supported as possible.

A large part of her more recent work is trying to help first-in-family students stay at university, while educating institutions on how to support these students to graduate. Her current ARC Discovery Project is exploring how FiF students persist at university, particularly the capitals and capabilities that assist in this process.

She says that this project and others has uncovered some worrying insights.

“We have interviewed and surveyed students across nine universities and found that a large proportion of those first-in-family students had considered leaving,” she says.

“The students in this study talked about being grateful [for being at university] and many had a low sense of belonging. This impacts on your behaviour, especially your help-seeking behaviour, in that these students often feel they can’t, or shouldn’t, ask for help.”

Professor O’Shea says one of the key elements that can help those students who feel that sense of disconnection to the university culture is their families.

“In times of difficulty who do you turn to? The top two responses we received were ‘self’ and ‘family’. These answers came across quite overwhelmingly in the interviews and narratives we collected from students, not just for young students but for mature-age students as well,” she says.

“Often in the research literature, family of those students who are the first to attend university are painted in a negative light. They are seen as less than positive about a family member going to university, but that is not necessarily the case. Family members can also be key supporters of students and their educational ambitions,” she affirms.

Supported by the Churchill Trust, last year Professor O’Shea conducted an international Fellowship project to explore ‘best practices in engaging and retaining students who are the first in their families to attend university in the UK, Canada and USA’, providing another significant contribution to research in this space.

Unexpected journey for senior academic

Associate Professor Trish Mundy- Associate Dean (Education) LHA, shares her story about her journey to becoming a UOW academic as the first in her family to attend university. Watch now.

First in Family student profile

Ashleigh Doherty, Bachelor of Medical and Health Sciences

“I was born and raised in the Illawarra in a large family with majority working in the transport industry as mechanics or drivers etc.

My journey to university was quite intimidating, as it is daunting being the first to navigate an unfamiliar path, but I was always encouraged to dedicate myself to my goals! And this was the path that my love for science and the human body was taking me.

I am now currently in my third year of a Bachelor of Medical and Health Sciences (Honours)(Dean's Scholar) and loving every moment of it.

When I was deciding what to do when I left high school I quickly decided that it is more important strive to be the best possible ‘you’ - doing something that you're interested in, rather than to allow pondering the "what if's" to consume the rest of your life. I stuck with that mindset through every barrier that I faced and continue to live by it as I decide what is next after university.