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Community Blog: The Success of First-Generation Students When They Don't Have to "Go It Alone"
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The Success of First-Generation Students When They Don't Have to "Go It Alone"
By: J. Vincent Nix


Being a first-generation student is a hard thing for me to celebrate. There are few people with whom I lived as a young boy that appreciate what I’ve done. No one I knew had attended college. That’s not to say that we weren’t learners – I was taught to read at an early age by my Great Uncle Ralph. However, “formal education” wasn’t really something encouraged in my family or community. Great Uncle Ralph himself had, at best, a fourth grade education. 

I almost didn’t attend college. As a scholar-athlete in high school, however, I received a few scholarship offers. I signed a grant-in aid to play Division III NCAA football with Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. My parents and I expected the grant to pay for everything. We were very wrong, and I quickly realized how in-over-my-head I was when I couldn’t even afford my first pair of required football cleats. I never showed up for class and just left school to go back to work. I know now that I was drowning because I didn’t know who or how to ask for help.

At the time, I thought asking questions made me appear unintelligent. I was embarrassed and afraid of making mistakes. Even when I returned to college five years later, it took me a while to warm up to the idea of asking for help and letting others know that I was struggling.

The truth is that I could have had more support, sooner, if I’d known how to or felt comfortable asking for it. Now, as a higher education professional, I try to get this message across loudly and clearly to my students: asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It actually demonstrates intelligence. Many of the first-generation students I’ve worked with came from environments where mistakes were extremely detrimental and not valued. Once we establish the open environment, a person asking for help can be placed in higher esteem.

Today, when I begin a new course, particularly a transition course, I start by writing the word “mistake” on the board and asking students for synonyms. Invariably, the students give me words with negative connotations: wrong, false, error, screw-up. To this date, I’ve never had anyone from a bridge or transition course provide a positive synonym. I then write the word “opportunity” on the board. “I want you to learn here,” I tell them, “and the best opportunities to learn come from mistakes.”

This idea of shame and embarrassment for one’s lack of experience or knowledge is something I find at the core of our jobs as student affairs professionals. I myself could have been a TRIO student (the Federal TRIO Programs provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds such as low-income individuals, first-generation college students, and individuals with disabilities). However, my pride was too great to let anyone know that my father had an eighth-grade education and my mother gave up a collegiate scholarship (and the chance to be the first in our family to attend college) to elope with my father. Just the other day, I was reading an assessment listserv where professionals were wondering why so many students don’t self-identify as one of the identities TRIO supports. In my case, as I expect for many others, it all came down to shame. Why would I tell people that no one in my family was formally educated?

One of my early disadvantages in higher education was that I never attended orientation. I signed up for classes the week they began, and back then we didn’t have late orientations. This, along with other high-impact practices that have been since identified, would have made a tremendous difference in my case. I find the following two practices the most valuable for the specific populations with whom I work:

  1. Collaborative learning groups bring students together to solve problems together and foster personal development through listening to the insights of others during group assignments or research. In my professional practice, I’ve seen these groups make a tremendous difference due to peer-accountability. I’ve seen students in bridge programs offer each other rides or send text messages of encouragement for attendance. 

  2. Intrusive advising works better for first-generation students than telling us “follow your dreams and passions.” For example, I wanted to be a physical therapist because of the impact one person had on my ability to walk again after a bad accident in my young adult life. That was an emotional choice and not at all based on my abilities or strengths. The critical issue was that I had avoided chemistry and life sciences simply because I enjoyed other classes more. I wasn’t equipped to pass a college chemistry or physics class, and I wasn’t apprised of any weakness in those areas until I couldn’t cope with the classroom assignments. Whatever your campus uses – Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Strengthsquest Strengthsfinder, Strong Interest Inventory – familiarize yourself with it and talk it up to your students. 

Finally, my advice to all orientation professionals working with first-generation students is to be real, honest, and human. Don’t try to impress every student and don’t be afraid to tell each one individually how much you are still learning. Tell them, like I do, that this “education thing” has changed and is changing your life.


Vincent Nix
Dean of Student Services, United States Sports Academy

    Dr. Vincent Nix earned a Ph.D. in Student Affairs from Washington State University. He's also an Ole Miss graduate, double-majoring in Psychology and Sociology, and speaking Mandarin and Japanese. Vince Lives with his life-partner Misty Song and their four kittens: Squirt, Tiantain, Jiaojiao, and Shuaige.


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