Supporting Parents in Supporting Their Students: Why Including First-Generation Families in the Process Is Important
Ever since colleges and universities have existed there have been first-generation college students. Often these students need different types of support and guidance when starting college than do their counterparts with at least one parent who attended college. Students whose family members did not attend an institution of higher education can have a difficult time navigating the process of completing applications, adjusting to the rigors of college-level courses, and helping their families understand what they are experiencing in college. Various initiatives can and have been utilized to help first-generation college students succeed. However, an important factor in first-generation college students’ success involves parents who are supportive and feel they are included in their sons’ and daughters’ education. Often parents of first-generation college students, sometimes referred to as first-generation parents, find their child’s college education a mystery. In many situations it becomes the responsibility of the academic advisers who work with first-generation college students to help these first-generation parents identify the best ways to support their students. The purpose of this article is to share three types of first-generation parents, explain why it is important to support them, highlight one institution’s initiative to support first-generation parents, and suggest ways in which academic advisers can more effectively work with first-generation families.
Types of First-Generation Parents
Jamala Harrison, an academic adviser for the TRiO Opportunity Scholars Program at the University of South Carolina, feels that first-generation parents fall into one of three groups: the hand holder, the unavailable, and the happy medium (J. Harrison, personal communication, September 15, 2010).
The Hand Holder
These parents want so badly for their children to have more or live better than they do. As a result, they make every decision for their students. These parents are very similar to “helicopter parents,” who are known to hover over their students’ every activity. Some of these “hand holders” live vicariously through their children, while others make their children’s decisions because they do not want them to fail. Working with these parents can be challenging for advisers. However, it is important for advisers to listen to these parents and help to clarify what is an appropriate middle ground between the student’s responsibilities and the parent’s involvement. Skillfully drawing the line in the sand for these parents in terms of what information can and cannot be shared is important.
The Unavailable Parent
These parents can either be physically or emotionally unavailable. Some of these parents are simply not in the picture; others do not understand why their children need a college education and are therefore unsupportive. Some of these “unavailable parents” simply do not understand how to support their students and, therefore, withdraw from the process completely. This can be the most difficult situation for academic advisers and students to face. Advisers will need to proactively reach out to these parents to help them learn how to be supportive of their children.
The Happy Medium
These parents are a dream come true for any academic adviser who works with first-generation college students. They provide the perfect balance of support and detachment. These parents recognize their lack of knowledge about their children’s college education and take steps to acquire the skills necessary to support their students while still giving them the appropriate amount of independence and autonomy. Many of these parents have older children who have already been to college. It should be a goal of academic advisers to help the “hand holder parents” and the “unavailable parents” become part of “the happy medium.”
Why is Supporting First-Generation Parents Important?
There are a number of reasons why working with first-generation parents is important. First, because first-generation parents did not attend college, they do not have these experiences to draw upon when trying to assist their children. This can cause unnecessary anxiety for parents and children. Another reason for academic advisers to provide support to first-generation families is that data indicates first-generation college students rely heavily on their parents’ opinions. In 2005, Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) Freshman Trend Survey found that 47 percent of first-generation college students listed their parents’ desire for them to attend college as a very important reason for enrolling in college, a number that is 5 percent higher than that of traditional college students. Therefore, it becomes increasingly important for institutions of higher education to acknowledge these parents as important participants in the lives of their children.
Another factor reflecting the importance of supporting first-generation parents is these parents are more likely to live nearby and thus may have more influence on their children’s decisions during college. The CIRP Survey shows that 49.9 percent of first-generation college students attend school within fifty miles of home and 26.6 percent indicate these students want to be close to home and chose their college or university accordingly (Saenz et al., 2007, p. 25). The implication is that many first-generation college students decide to stay close to home because of the value they place on their families.
Dr. Paul Beasley, the director of TRiO Programs at the University of South Carolina, expressed one of the most important reasons it is important to provide support services for first-generation parents. He feels that parents are important to the process, because “students whose parents are supportive of their education are more likely to complete their four-year degree. Retention is very difficult for first-generation college students whose parents are not supportive of their education” (P. Beasley, personal communication, October 4, 2010).
Programs Designed to Work with First-Generation Families
Although there are various initiatives that support students whose parents did not attend college, these initiatives most commonly fall under TRiO programs. More specifically, these programs are:
Federal outreach and student services programs designed to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. TRiO includes eight programs targeted to serve and assist low-income individuals, first-generation college students, and individuals with disabilities to progress through the academic pipeline from middle school to postbaccalaureate programs. (U.S. Department of Education, 2010, ¶ 1)
These initiatives target students at all educational levels. For example, Talent Search and Upward Bound supports middle and high school students preparing for college, Student Support Services Programs work with first-year college students to help them with their college transition, and the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program targets students who intend to apply to graduate school and gives them master’s level research experience.
Saenz, Hurtado, Barrera, Wolf, and Yeung (2007), said the need for these initiatives is based on:
…the general perception that, relative to their peers, such students have poorer academic preparation, different motivations for enrolling in college, varying levels of parental support and involvement, different expectations for their college experience, and significant obstacles in their path to retention and academic success. (p. 1).
Most first-year students come to college unaware of the personal and academic challenges they may face. First-generation college students face even greater challenges, as they must pave their own way without parents who have experienced the challenges of college.
First-Generation Parent Programs at the University of South Carolina
The TRiO Opportunity Scholars Program (OSP) at the University of South Carolina has been a vital student support service to the university since 1972. In addition to helping countless low-income, first-generation college students adjust to college life, OSP also provides financial support, mentoring opportunities, cultural enrichment, and first-year-level courses exclusively for OSP students (University of South Carolina, 2010). OSP at the University of South Carolina was also the first department on campus to implement a first-year experience course, University 101, exclusively for its students.
While OSP offers many services to its students, its commitment to supporting the parents of the students in the program is equally strong. The Opportunity Scholars Program offers a variety of initiatives through which parents receive support and feel included in their child’s education, including summer orientation, pre-semester orientation, parent reception, and one-on-one contact with academic advisers.
Summer orientation and pre-semester orientation are two events that take place before school begins. Both help to familiarize students and their parents with college life. The summer orientation not only assists students with registering for classes and dealing with financial aid issues, it also introduces parents and students to the college campus environment. This is also the first of many opportunities the parents will have to meet their student’s assigned OSP adviser.
Before classes begin, OSP students are asked to move into their residence halls a day earlier than other first-year students. After they move in, students and their parents attend a luncheon and pre-semester orientation at the University of South Carolina’s Williams-Brice football stadium. During the event, the students and their families share a meal with OSP professors, advisers, staff members, and peer mentors. After the meal the students split into groups and attend various breakout sessions led by OSP faculty, staff, and upperclass students. Parents remain in the banquet hall, where they receive information about what college will be like for their children, learn tips on effectively supporting their students in the coming months, and ask questions of a panel of upperclass and graduate students.
Role playing scenarios are used with the parents to teach them how to best support their children. For example, OSP faculty members give three examples of phone conversations that could take place between a parent and his or her child after the student does poorly on an exam. In the first example, the parent tells the student to come home and attend a community college closer to home. This example portrays how an “unavailable” parent would react to this situation. The second example demonstrates a “hand holder” reacting by telling the child that the parent will call the professor to take care of the situation. Finally, the third example shows a “happy medium” parent who asks the student questions about the test, about preparing for it, if he or she spoke with the professor about the results, and if the student plans to do better on the next exam. This exercise teaches parents how they can make a positive impact on their children ’s college experience.
OSP sponsors a parent reception on the Friday evening of the university’s fall family weekend. Although not all parents are able to attend this event, it is an important opportunity for those who do to see their children’s progress and to meet with students’ professors and advisers. During the 2010 Parent Reception, one parent thanked his son’s OSP adviser for the support she had provided to him and his son. He mentioned how the OSP adviser had made the family’s transition easier.
This one-on-one contact that OSP academic advisers have with each advisee’s parents is the main way OSP supports parents. The OSP advisers have an open door policy for both students and parents. They make a point initiating contact with the parents from the point of the student’s admission into OSP via summer and pre-semester orientations. Advisers let parents know they are an important part of the student’s support team and help them deal with questions that arise about housing, financial aid, and scholarships. For OSP parents, The OSP advisers serve as the parents’ lifeline to the university.
By proactively establishing relationships with first-generation parents, OSP advisers also can learn about student issues. One OSP adviser experienced this firsthand when she was advising a student exhibiting abnormal behavior. After several unsuccessful attempts to make contact with the student, the mother contacted the adviser and informed her that she was concerned about her son’s welfare. The student was dealing with depression, and his mother was concerned that he might end his life. Though the OSP adviser is not a trained counselor, she was able to work with the student’s mother in order to refer the student to a trained counselor and help him make a plan for the future. The student eventually decided to withdraw for the semester; but with the adviser’s help, he was able to come back to school the following semester after dealing with his depression, and he ultimately became a successful student.
Parent interaction is an integral part of the retention success experienced by the Opportunity Scholars Program at the University of South Carolina. During the 2009–2010 school year, 106 first-year students participated in the program. Only six of the students left the university, with four of those six students transferring to different institutions. The program had a first-to-second-year retention rate of 95 percent, which is far above the university’s overall first-to-second-year retention rate. Although small class sizes and the one-on-one attention they receive also contribute to this retention rate, OSP advisers feel that their parent outreach efforts play an important role. Through four decades of events, activities, and the work of TRiO OSP advisers to make parents feel they are part of their children’s team, OSP has made a difference in the lives of first-generation college students.
Key Points to Take Away
Although the TRiO Opportunity Scholars Program at the University of South Carolina intentionally works closely with students and parents, there are some key takeaway points that other academic advisers can learn from their initiatives. First, academic advisers should seek ways to make connections with the parents of first-generation students. This allows advisers to add a new member to the advisee support team and gives parents someone to contact when they have issues, concerns, or questions. One way to build this connection is through participating in campus activities that are geared toward parents. However, it may be unrealistic to expect the parents of first-generation students to be able to afford to attend university football games or be able to stay in a hotel during the university’s family weekend. Events for first-generation families should be planned with these economic limitations in mind. An example would be planning activities in the middle of the day so parents are able to drive in for the event and drive back the same day.
Another method of communicating with first-generation parents is to send periodic parent newsletters. Depending on the amount of time and money available for the project, the newsletter could be as simple as a one-page note detailing important dates and events or could be a more detailed parent magazine that features faculty, staff, and students in the department.
The OSP academic advisers had two suggestions when asked what types of initiatives they would implement if time and money were unlimited. Althea Counts (personal communication, September 15, 2010) said she would implement a program called “A Day in the Life of My College Student” in which parents would come to campus, attend classes, eat in the school cafeteria, and spend the night in a campus residence hall. This activity would allow parents to see life through their students’ eyes. Jamala Harrison (personal communication, September 15, 2010) mentioned starting a parent support group for members to share concerns and learn from each other.
The vast majority of first-generation parents want what is best for their children. Some may not feel that college is the most appropriate choice, while others push their children into college in the hopes that they will have a better, more prosperous life. Whatever the intention or motivation, parental approval and participation are important and vital to the success of their children. The parent-friendly initiatives implemented by the TRiO Opportunity Scholars Program at the University of South Carolina showcase some ways that parents can be included as part of their students’ support team.
Saenz, V. B., Hurtado, S., Barrera, D., Wolf, D., & Yeung, F. (2007). First in my family: A profile of first-generation college students at four-year institutions since 1971. Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.
U.S. Department of Education. (2010, October 18). Federal TRiO programs—Home page. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/trio/index.html
University of South Carolina. (2010, October 27). Opportunity Scholars Program. Retrieved from http://www.sc.edu/trio/osp.htm
About the Author(s)
Laura M. Smith is a graduate student in the University of South Carolina’s Higher Education and Student Affairs program. She is also a graduate assistant in the university’s TRiO Opportunity Scholars Program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.