So, you plan to boldly go where no one in your immediate family has gone before. You plan on being the first to go to university!

Well, the good news (and an important fact to remember) is you’re not alone.

"First in family is a growing cohort,” said Associate Professor Sarah O'Shea, from UOW’s School of Education. “Currently in Australia, it's estimated that 51 per cent of our student population are first in family.” 

UOW student Mitchell Fenner is one of those students. He didn’t plan on going to university when he graduated from high school in Tamworth in 2012. No one in his family had ever attended university. But after a gap year, Mitchell decided to embark on a double degree in Engineering and Science at UOW.

After enrolling, Mitchell was confronted with many challenges, including being 500 kilometres away from his family and friends, personal tragedies, financial difficulty, and trouble identifying with other students, but he’s persevering.

“Since I can remember, I have watched my father work in jobs that he had to have in order to make money, rather than jobs that he wanted to do…I came to university to find out exactly how much I can do.”

FIF Mitchell Fenner

First in family (FIF) students often fall into multiple equity groups. Since 2012, when the government uncapped the number of places a university could offer, we’ve seen much-improved participation rates from these equity groups, apart from Indigenous students, who remain underrepresented in higher education.

“The issue is that attrition rates for these groups remains really high,” Professor O'Shea said. “We are getting people in, but retaining them is more difficult.” 

FIF Sarah O'Shea

Here are some hard facts. Research shows that 26 per cent of FIF students will think about dropping out during their first year. This figure increases to 34 per cent in later years.

“The actual attrition rate for university students as a whole hovers around the 18 per cent mark,” Professor O'Shea said. 

So what causes FIF students to drop out? The same research points to these top four reasons:

  1. Study-life balance
  2. Difficulty with workload
  3. Boredom
  4. Needing paid work

While the majority of reasons mirror those who are not FIF, there are a few stands outs, the strongest being ‘difficulty with the workload’. 22 per cent of FIF students sited this as a reason for dropping out, compare to only 13 per cent of those not FIF. This suggests FIF students need support adjusting to university life.

“What's come up again and again with the students that I've interviewed for various projects is the lack of a knowledgeable ‘other’ in the family,” Professor O'Shea said. “There’s no one to normalise what happens in the first year of university. The fact that it may be hectic and to reassure them that it's ok to drop a subject if they need to.”

Families of a FIF student often don't know how to support them because the parents or siblings have never experienced the intricacies of university life.

“They assume there's not an awful lot of support they can offer, when in fact it’s the very small things that can make a difference to the student,” Professor O'Shea said.

In general, Professor O'Shea’s research has found families to be very supportive of a student’s choice to be the first to go to university.

“While there were cases where families were not supportive, largely to do with the debt, predominately is was very positive. It was seen as a huge step forward for the family collectively. But that, in a way, puts pressure on the student,” she said. “If you’re the first in family to go to uni, generally there's a lot of people within your family that are looking towards you and thinking, ‘maybe I can do that too’. But if they drop out, it sends a very clear message. One that can have real significance intergenerationally. 

Mitchell was lucky enough to have one of those very supportive families.

“What my family lacks financially, it has more than compensated for with their support and advice in any decision that will make me happy,” he said. “From the moment I told my parents I had decided to go to university, I noticed my father treating me a little differently. I like to believe it is him being happy to see me become the most I can be, and in a way, that I will be able to do what he wasn’t able to, as we are very much alike,” he said. 

Currently, Professor O'Shea is completing an Office for Learning & Teaching Fellowship, looking at FIF learners and how universities can engage with the family of those learners.

“I am working with the In2Uni program, particularly their university preparation program targeted at Year 12 students, to see how we might work with the families to inform them on how they can support the learner,” she said. “I certainly feel UOW is very committed to this area and to the student experience.” 

The overall student experience plays a vital role in the retention and success of FIF students, and it’s something that Mitchell is experiencing firsthand.

“I have met several engineers who have offered to mentor me throughout various stages of my degree, as well as staff throughout the university who are able to give advice in terms of the prospective avenues of study and attaining work experience,” he said.

FIF Campus shot

For a FIF student, going to university is obviously not the norm. To break that norm, takes a certain type of person – one with aspirations.

“I'm very interested in reframing ideas of lack to looking at capabilities. First in family students have a lot of tenacity and a lot of resilience,” Professor O’Shea said. “While there are undoubtedly some challenges of being first in family, it can be celebrated as a strength – a way of positively welcoming this student cohort to university and then actually targeting support to them.”

Associate Professor Sarah O’Shea’s Top 5 Tips for FIF Students

  1. Don't forget the skills you're coming to uni with. The skills that got you here will prove to be invaluable.
  2. Develop your social networks. Move out of your comfort zone a little and say hello to one new person every day for a couple of weeks. If you have the time, be sure to join a few club or societies.
  3. Don't be afraid to ask questions. If you're unsure about something chances are you’re not alone, and others will be grateful you spoke up.
  4. Use the support services on offer. Some of the highest-achieving students are using these services. Universities want you to succeed.
  5. Check out firstinfamily.com. It’s a whole site dedicated to supporting FIF students. Read the success stories, advice from real FIF students and more.