Advising First-Generation College Students for Continued Success

Kourtney C. Kocel, University of South Carolina

Editor's note: This is the tenth in a series of articles written by students enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate seminar on academic advising at the University of South Carolina for the 2007 fall semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.

As a first-generation college student, I understand the struggles of other students who are the first in their families to go to college. When I began my first year of undergraduate work, I was unfamiliar with the term first-generation college student. I was, however, familiar with the feelings many first-generation students experience. I was anxious about trying something no one in my family had attempted and frustrated that everyone else seemed to be more knowledgeable about campus.

There were many people who helped me along the way and provided me with the tools I needed to be successful. One of the most influential people was my academic adviser. While her main duty was to assist me in selecting classes, she helped me with so much more. She was the person I sought when I had trouble navigating campus bureaucracy, and she assisted me greatly with my post-graduation plans. Without the guidance of my academic adviser, my path through college would have been much more difficult.

The role of an academic adviser is pivotal to a student's successful journey through college, particularly for the first-generation student. For those who are the first in their families to enter the world of higher education, extra help and support is often needed. Academic advisers may be the ones students turn to for advice about classes and for assistance in learning about campus operations and culture.

First-Generation Student Characteristics

To help first-generation students be successful, it is important to understand the challenges they may face. While all students need time to adjust to college, those who are the first in their families to attend college may have additional obstacles to overcome. A first-generation student is more likely to be older, have a lower socioeconomic status, have a family, and attend school part-time (U.S. Department of Education, 2006). This kind of student is also more likely to commute to campus and thus is often less involved in campus life (Gibbons & Shoffner, 2004). In addition, first-generation students may feel guilty about attending college because of the financial strain it places on their families (Sickles, 2004). Understanding pressures that many first-generation students experience will allow advisers to better guide them and provide resources when necessary.

Keys to Success for First-Generation Students

Rodriguez (2003) investigated factors that contributed to the success of first-generation college students by interviewing seventeen first-generation students from a variety of backgrounds. She found three key factors that helped first-generation students apply to college, gain admission, and graduate.

Rodriguez (2003) refers to the first factor as special status. Students in her study were typically singled out, in a positive way, during childhood. This special treatment gave students the self-confidence to take risks. Risk-taking led the students to experience things that were not typical of other family members and positively impacted their decisions to move away from home and begin college. Rodriguez identified positive naming as a second factor that contributed to student success. Positive naming involves someone in the student's life who recognizes his or her potential, connects the student's natural strengths and characteristics to a profession, and helps the student learn how to enter that particular field. The third factor that Rodriguez identified involves encouragement, assistance, and advocacy of mentors in the student's life.

While Rodriguez's article mainly focused on what factors were pivotal in helping students enroll in college, she also identified factors that can assist students after enrollment: inspirational teaching, promoting a sense of belonging, activism and risk taking, and aiding students in creating academic plans. Academic advisers can play pivotal roles in the lives of first-generation students once they arrive on campus by mentoring and encouraging them. “For the support needed to succeed in college, many first-generation college students turn to their academic advisors, not just for academic advice, but for guidance considered necessary to navigate day-to-day campus life” (Sickles, 2004). Effective advisers will go beyond assisting students to select classes; they will help students to plan both academic and personal goals for success (Sickles).

Advising Formats

Academic advising is typically done either one-on-one or in groups. Each method can be effective depending on the circumstances at your particular institution. Working one-on-one with a student may allow the adviser to get to know the student better and assist with specific needs. However, group advising allows first-generation students to connect with peers and recognize that others are having similar experiences. Group advising also has the potential to provide students with a support network beyond the adviser.

King (2000) outlines the components of a successful group advising session. First, she recommends that the session begin with introductions and icebreakers. These activities allow the adviser and students to get to know each other. During the group advising sessions, advisers should encourage students to think on their own and develop appropriate courses of action. If an adviser notices that a student is not fully engaged in the group advising session, he or she might ask the student to come in for a follow-up one-on-one advising session.

Regardless of whether the adviser decides to use one-on-one or group advising sessions, it is important to assess the impact of the method selected. Advisers need to gather data from students to learn if the advising sessions are effectively meeting the needs of students. Information about how to assess advising programs can be found online at the National Academic Advising Association's Clearinghouse: The assessment results should guide how future advising sessions are conducted.

Advising Styles

Once the adviser settles on a format, the next decision involves what style of advising to use with first-generation students. Two common advising styles are intrusive advising and appreciative advising.

Intrusive advising is characterized by “intentional contact with students to develop a caring and beneficial relationship that leads to increased academic motivation and persistence” (Varney, 2007). Often this type of advising begins during orientation with a mandatory advisory meeting and continues throughout the year with intentional, planned interactions (Varney). Advisers who use this style often have lunch with their advisees or meet with them during breaks. They are available for their students and act as advocates when necessary (Varney). This type of advising works well for first-generation students, since they may not know how or when to seek their advisers.

Another style of advising to consider using is appreciative advising. Appreciative advising is based on the organizational development theory of appreciative inquiry, which focuses on asking students positive, open-ended questions (Bloom & Martin, 2002). Bloom and Martin apply the four stages of appreciative inquiry (discovery, dream, design, and destiny) to the advising setting. In the discovery phase, advisers ask students questions targeted at eliciting their strengths and passions. The dream phase entails using positive, open-ended questions to help uncover students' hopes and dreams. The design phase involves the adviser and student working together to develop both short- and long-term goals to accomplish the student's dreams. Finally, the destiny phase involves giving the advisee space and support to accomplish the goals. This method of advising can be beneficial for first-generation students, because it provides positive reinforcement and an opportunity to share their stories with a concerned representative of the institution.


First-generation college students are a unique population. While they often experience challenges during their educational careers, they are also a resilient and successful group. Academic advisers have a great amount of influence on these students. Advisers should carefully consider what format and style of advising they will implement to help these students become college graduates.


Bloom, J. L., & Martin, N. A. (2002, August 29). Incorporating appreciative inquiry into academic advising. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 4(3). Retrieved November 12, 2007, from

Gibbons, M. M., & Shoffner, M. F. (2004). Prospective first-generation college students: Meeting their needs through social cognitive career theory [Electronic version]. Professional School Counseling, 8, 91–97.

King, N. S. (2000). Advising students in groups. In V. N. Gordon & W. R. Habley (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 228–237). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rodriguez, S. (2003). What helps some first-generation students succeed [Electronic version]. About Campus, 17–20.

Sickles, A. R. (2004). Advising first-generation students. NACADA clearinghouse of academic advising resources. Retrieved November 1, 2007, from

U.S. Department of Education. (2006). The condition of education 2006. National Center for Education Statistics (2006-071) Indicator 29.

Varney, J. (2007). Intrusive advising. NACADA clearinghouse of academic advising resources. Retrieved November 1, 2007, from

About the Author

Kourtney C. Kocel is a graduate student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of South Carolina. She can be reached at

Published in The Mentor on March 12, 2008, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
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