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First-generation college students

Nearly 30% of UW undergraduates are the first in their families to go to college. Recent studies have documented the challenges of these students—who often graduate at lower rates than their multigenerational peers—as well as their strong academic engagement and commitment to their education.

A number of educators at UW—including faculty members, graduate teaching assistants (TAs), and staff educators—were also first-generation students in college. We strongly encourage first-generation and all instructors to help build community and a sense of belonging for students through the following strategies.

Learn about students’ background knowledge

Find out what students know about key concepts in your course and how much experience they have completing key tasks (e.g. writing papers for your discipline or working in groups).

Many instructors do this by assigning ungraded quizzes on the first day of the quarter. If you find out that students have gaps in knowledge or skills, consider devoting a bit of class to reviewing these and/or helping students find additional support.

Be explicit about policies

“It’s on the syllabus” is a common refrain for many of us, but navigating a syllabus isn’t always intuitive or easy for students. Clarify your course syllabus and policies for students whenever possible. For example, consider giving students an ungraded syllabus quiz with an opportunity to work with a classmate on finding answers to key questions about the course. This activity can be especially helpful for students who might be less comfortable approaching you with a question after class.

In particular, clarify any policies for:

  • Participation
  • Group work
  • Grading
  • Late work

Allow for flexibility outside of class

Many first-generation students have work and family schedules that can make it difficult to attend office hours or participate in events that take place outside of class.

Group work

If you require students to meet in groups outside of class, consider allowing synchronous online group meetings via Zoom. Online meetings can help those students who have jobs or don’t live near campus find a time to meet with other group members.

  • If asynchronous group discussion or online peer review meets the learning goals for the project or assignment, consider those options, for the same reasons.
  • Give students some time in class to get their group meetings in place.
  • Stress the importance of finding a time that is convenient for everyone, not just the majority of group members.
  • Give students a group check-in survey early on to make sure that they are being included before the group progresses too far into the work. Then you can intervene and help groups correct course if needed.

Assignments & deadlines

Give students a list of assignments and deadlines as early as possible in the quarter. This can help them rearrange work and other schedules so that they can take steps to ensure they’ll have the time needed to complete large projects.

Remember that students’ identities are intersectional

The Center for First-Generation Student Success has noted the importance of acknowledging that first-generation students have other aspects of their identity. They use the term “First-gen Plus” to draw attention to students who are first-generation + minority students, first-generation + LGBTQI students, first-generation + low income students, etc. To best help our first-generation students succeed and feel a sense of belonging, we must teach in ways that aim to help all students learn.

Teaching as a first-generation student

Many UW faculty and TAs were once first-generation college students ourselves. First-generation college students have reported that “being connected to a specific mentor, faculty member, or advisor is critical to their success.” Those of us who are first-generation can–when we feel comfortable doing so–let students know our stories to make this connection and show them that they, too, belong at UW.