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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Garth Stahl, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland


Higher education research shows families pursue university because it provides opportunities for upward social mobility. With a university education come more options for career choices and, it is assumed, increased social status.

There have been many efforts to widen participation in higher education in Australia. Due to these, 50% of the student population is estimated to be the first in their family to go to university.

But first-in-family students still struggle with balancing the demand of academic life with part-time employment, and have a high degree of attrition.

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We conducted research with 48 first-in-family students over the course of three years as they made the transition from secondary school to university. The research was published in our book Gendering the First-in-Family Experience.

Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group

The students came from ethnically diverse backgrounds and were recruited from across state, independent and faith-based schools. We focused on how their aspirations changed in relation to their experiences at university.

We found young men and women had different relationships with their parents which, in turn, contributed to how they navigated life after school.

How families support students

Parents of first-in-family students in our study were supportive of their children’s education, but they did not necessarily have sufficient knowledge of higher education to be able to give advice about navigating the system.

Instead, families focused on supporting students emotionally.

Aisha spoke of how her parents supported her during her stressful final year of school:

[…] because they couldn’t help me so much with the work […] they’d cook me dinner when I’d be working or studying. Or […] just small things like cups of tea at night or just a lolly or a chocolate or something just to keep me going because I’d always stay up until crazy hours studying.

More opportunities than their parents had

Mothers were often the primary resource in terms of the emotional support for the participants. This was especially true for the young women in the study, where part of their aspirations for university were to experience the opportunities and futures their mothers were denied.

Tabitha, who was studying for a Bachelor in Health and Medical Science, told us:

Mum wanted to go to uni and possibly become a teacher, but she didn’t have the money or the opportunity to do that. Whereas, I have that opportunity […] but it’s not without the consequences of my mum not being able to do what she was able to do until later in life.

Many of the young men also saw their lives as filled with more opportunities than their parents.

Dominic, whose father worked as a mechanic and mother eventually trained at TAFE as an accountant, told us how his decision to pursue university was significantly informed by his parents’ biographies.

Yeah, my dad finished year 12 and then went to work. So, I’m doing pretty well. But I’m the first into university in my family. Hoping it’s better than their life. I don’t want to say that their life is bad or anything […] they’ve done pretty well.

How family dynamics changed

As they transitioned to university from school, both our female and male participants renegotiated family responsibilities with parents and siblings. These significantly contributed to their experience as students.

Logan, who was studying a Bachelor in Health Science, told us:

I have to focus on uni more than family time and stuff like that […] my mum working from 9 to 5. Sometimes I’m in the city until 5:30 and I get home and then I’m already ready for bed so […] I probably don’t see her as much as probably I would like […]

The young men in the study wanted to be seen as independent in their decision making. This was less apparent for girls who valued the support of their families.

Adam, who was studying a Bachelor in Science, told us:

I don’t have a job at the moment so my parents are supporting me but I will pay for university by myself.

Archie, who was studying for a Bachelors in IT, said:

I haven’t really relied on anyone.

Leo, who intended to study for a Bachelor of Education and later withdrew, said:

[…] I don’t really have direct support […] my family are always there if I need them of course but I don’t really go to them. I don’t want to burden them; I just sort of carry it on my own shoulders if I can whether that’s successfully or not. I don’t know. I feel like I don’t want to burden people with my problems.

They struggled to integrate

Many of the first-in-family students we spoke with often struggled to socially integrate with other university students who were often from more privileged backgrounds. They found the experience isolating and they doubted themselves.

Manny, who was studying engineering, said:

It depends on the dude, there are some dudes [in engineering] that are pretty high on snob meter […] then you’ve got some of the normal people but they’re kind of rare because some of the uni boys they’re like if you’re not getting HDs you’re below them.

Of the 48 participants, nine students withdrew from university, seven chose not to attend and two deferred.

We would argue universities need to be sensitive to the gender identity of students because it has implications for how they may offer effective forms of support. Within our cohort of first-in-family students, gender was often a contributing factor in terms of how these students experienced university.

Gendering the First-in-Family Experience: Transitions, Liminality, Performativity is out now through Routledge.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. ‘Mum wanted to go to uni, but she didn’t have the opportunity’: what students who are first in their family to go to university say –