How Can We Help First-Generation Students Make Sense of Politicized College Campuses?

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by Dr. Yoon S. Choi

One of the more surprising moments in my first weeks at college was being invited into a ‘Take Back the Night’ protest. After living on the other side of the world from my parents throughout high school, I’d received very little guidance on what to expect from campus life, and the concept of students demonstrating was so foreign to me that I left the encounter feeling not excited or curious, but isolated and confused. While my classmates seemed to fit into the protest so seamlessly, I didn’t understand how or if I should even take part.

I’m reminded of that feeling as fierce political debates continue on college campuses across the country. A UCLA survey of college students nationwide found that 2015-16’s  freshman class expressed more interest in on-campus protesting than any cohort since 1967—an interest that’s evident in recent demonstrations about everything from provocative on-campus speakers to the future of DACA to controversial school policies.

Based on this activity, it’s easy to assume that all college students feel empowered by a politicized atmosphere. After all, many are embracing the opportunity to advocate for their interests and communities.

But for some—especially those who are the first in their family to attend college—student protests can be quite unfamiliar, and can make them feel dangerously unwelcome on campus.

Integrating with an on-campus community makes students more likely to stay enrolled in college and helps them cultivate valuable professional networks. Yet many factors already make it tougher for first-generation students to fit in. In high school, many struggle with the false impression that they don’t belong at college simply because they lack information about college life. Persistent negative stereotypes about the college readiness of students of color—who are much more likely to be first-generation college attendees—can have a similar effect.

Further obstacles often emerge once students arrive at college. First-generation students are more likely to live off-campus and to work a full-time job, leaving less time for socializing. They also often face a lack of empathy from classmates with more societal privilege. If that wasn’t enough, the Pell Grant and Federal Work-Study financial aid programs, which enable many first-generation students to pay tuition, both face significant cuts.

Now imagine a college campus is wracked by intense demonstrations. Perhaps student groups are disagreeing with one another. Perhaps police officers are present, making the mood tense. If you weren’t expecting to see protests, don’t know the participants or issue at hand, and already feel out of place on campus, would you be more likely to join in or feel intimidated?

I’ve known some first-generation students who overcame this uncertainty, and others who have not. Nohely, a college senior in Los Angeles who mentors for the nonprofit organization I run, recently told our team, “I wasn’t aware that political activism was common at college…it’s intriguing, but it’s also scary in my opinion, because there are always officers coming onto campus whenever there is a rally. When there’s new freshman on campus, you can tell from some of their expressions that they’re thinking, ‘Hold on, what did I get into? This is supposed to be a safe space.”

Nohely took it upon herself to study contemporary politics and get involved on campus, but some of her classmates reacted differently: “I’ve known people who have dropped out because of all the activism, because the college and high school didn’t prepare us. I know people who have dropped out because they feel bombarded by protests and feel like they could be attacked.”

Jaylyn, another one of our mentors and a senior at UC Merced, shared a similar experience: “When I was in high school I didn’t know about political activism on campus. I couldn’t even fathom that. It helps a lot that for me personally, I was introduced early on to the Black Student Union, which was my first experience seeing a group of my peers fighting for students like me to have a voice. I think that without the BSU, it would have overwhelmed me a little bit more.” 

Nohely and Jaylyn are proof that student activism can be an affirming experience for those who choose to participate. But students like them should not be left to navigate on-campus politics by themselves, when they already face so many inequities on their journey through college.

That’s why colleges need to address protests in any introductory programs that exist to help first-generation students acclimatize to their new home. When such programs do not exist, colleges should prioritize launching them. They are an important way to introduce first-generation students to supportive resources and student groups, and can share nuances about college life that other students learn from family and friends.

Colleges can also help by vigorously directing first-generation students to on-campus community groups throughout their first year, and by offering free or low-cost campus visits to first-generation students before they even make a college decision. A recent Cooke Foundation study found that 44 percent of high-achieving, low-income students did not visit their top-choice college before applying—an unfortunate statistic about an experience that helps many students acclimate to campus life.

As long as protests are a part of college life, these tactics and others like them can help us support those students who haven’t raised their voice.

Dr. Yoon S. Choi is CEO of CollegeSpring.