First-Generation College Students – How Can the Library Help?

Three months into my current position, I realized that one of my biggest professional goals was to work with first-generation college students (FGCS). Inspired by a presentation about FGCS on campus at a Teaching with Technology conference sponsored by the campus Center for Teaching and Learning, I immediately marched into my reporting officer’s office seeking guidance on how to make this happen. As a social work librarian at my current institution, my primary outreach focus is on students and faculty who participate in the Master of Social Work program in the School of Social Work, and my secondary focus is participation in campus-wide reference and instruction programs for undergraduate and graduate students. I was worried about whether I’d have the opportunity to achieve this goal in my current position – could I cross the lateral boundaries of my immediate job responsibilities to work with this student population? Would that be a major faux pas? Did any of my colleagues want to join me? Would campus stakeholders be willing to collaborate (or, at least, provide insight) on library initiatives? Luckily, I have an endlessly supportive reporting officer who encouraged me to rally support from both academic and non-academic partners across campus.

Here is some background. I was not an FGCS myself, but I taught many of them in my introduction to information literacy course during graduate school. Planning, coordinating, and delivering lesson plans for that course was probably the most challenging part of my job assignment as a teaching assistant, but it was also the most rewarding – the experience also inspired me to pursue instruction as a library career. If possible, I wanted to continue working with this student population but knew that it may not be within the purview of my job responsibilities, especially in my first job.

At my current institution, the number of FGCS is increasing and the number of corresponding university services dedicated to FGCS is, thankfully, increasing as well. Groups dedicated to peer mentoring, career services, and internships for FCGS are going strong on campus, some of them with years of institutional history and experience under their belts. The First Generation College Student Task Force guides many of these groups. Developed under the auspice of the Office for Diversity and Strategic Initiatives, the group is dedicated to connecting FGCS students with myriad resources available to them on campus. In addition to connecting students to academic resources such as the Writing Center and cultural resources such as El Centro Chicano, the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs, and the Women’s Student Assembly, the Task Force encourages student well being and offers support for stress management. The Task Force also supports FGCS fellowships, awards, internships, and study abroad programs

So how did the library fit into this campus support system for FGCS? Was there a need for a library program for FGCS? I certainly wasn’t sure. I knew that collaboration was key – collaboration with my library colleagues and campus groups dedicated to helping FGCS.

It took six months for me to put out a call to library staff and faculty. I sent an email via the lib-all listserv (which was terrifying!) to gauge interest. Were any of my colleagues interested in starting a FGCS working group in the library? They were. We ended up with a fairly agile group of library faculty and staff – many whom were FGCS themselves – who wanted to develop library interventions for FGCS or, at least, think more intentionally about library outreach to this student population.

But what should these library interventions look like? Are they workshops? Personal librarian programs? A position dedicated to FGCS? Our initial conversations were informal and concentrated on reviewing the literature on FGCS and learning more about campus FGCS partners. We started out as an information-seeking group. We knew that the insight of campus partners dedicated to FGCS was crucial to guiding our charge. And let me tell you, it took time to gain buy-in from these partners – understandably so. Like so many on college campuses, these groups are understaffed and over worked; we were a freshly developed group who needed more of their time. So immediate buy-in was, frankly, non-existent. After months of contacting the Task Force, introducing myself to stakeholders, and describing the charge of our library group, I finally convinced the Vice Dean and Assistant Dean of Diversity and Strategic Initiatives – and leaders of the Task Force – to chat with our group about how the library could help FGCS.

We learned that 16% of the undergraduates at our institution are FGCS, defined as students where neither parents attended or completed college. We learned more about the many academic and non-academic campus groups dedicated to FGCS. We talked about the tacit barriers to college, such as working full-time while maintaining a full course load, managing anxiety about financial support, and negotiating the pressure to select a career aligned with familial goals or values. They discussed how crucial it is to include families in the FGCS experience. The Vice Dean, who teaches a general education seminar, talked to us in-depth about his philosophy and lesson plans for the class. I knew that many FGCS don’t self-identify as FCGS, but these conversations encouraged me to really ruminate on what that meant for our groups’ outreach philosophy. We were slated to meet for only an hour but collaboration flowed beyond that allotted time frame.

This conversation caused us to completely re-shift our focus. Instead of focusing on developing robust workshops, we are focused on changing the library’s perspective among FGCS. We need to simplify library language and heighten the library’s visibility on campus, which means that we need to get out of the library to help FGCS where they naturally fall on campus. We need to focus on what we can do to help them succeed in college. We need to educate academic advisors and campus peer mentoring groups on what the libraries has to offer FGCS. I’m focusing on developing an interactive library tutorial about many of the tacit barriers to academic success – such as breaking down the stigma of attending office hours, or reaching out the Writing Center for help. I’m also focusing my effort on developing campus awareness of OER and laying the groundwork on, hopefully, lowering the costs associated with textbook purchases.

Of course, all of this is in development. But our group now has a set of goals, and that’s a big deal! Group participation may wax and wane during the academic year, but at least we have an objective and related goals. But I’d love to learn more about what other university libraries provide for FGCS. Does your library provide outreach to FGCS? Are such outreach initiatives folded into another program? How does your library approach this outreach experience? I’d really like to develop a support network for librarians to share and collaborate on ideas for FGCS library programs. If you’d like to reach out to me directly (again, I’d really like to hear from you!), I’m on Twitter @therealcalliek.

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