Prep and Transform 4 Future SUCCESS | Impact Monthly

College can offer social change and communication challenges to first-generation college students.

Contributed by Susie Schainost, M.Ed., M.D.S.

College can offer social change and communication challenges for all students, but especially for first generation college students, many of whom are older and work full time to support their family while attending college. The dichotomy of balancing work, family, and academics can lead first generation students to not interact with faculty, staff, and peers. Gardner & Holley (2012) found that for first generation students, working full time while concentrating on studies leads to fatigue and lack of engagement in academics.

The transition between work, home, and school can be a large challenge. However, creating a support system can help ease the pressure of balancing these challenges. Support systems can range from transition plans to programs to individual people.


In college, students are responsible for self-representing learning needs (self-efficacy). An Academic Support Services Office can contribute to student success by teaching students how to develop an environment of conversation when meeting with faculty. Conversations should use age-appropriate dialogue (without the use of jargons) to align both student and faculty expectations as well as program requirements (Shaw, et al, 2010, p. 172).

Growth in Transition

Creating a transition plan that encourages transformations in the student’s interests, personal life, and physical needs can be a factor for success. Camarena and Sarigiani (2009) interviewed students entering college about educational goals, and one of the questions asked was “Why is college important?” (p. 121). Concerned about their futures, the interviewees’ response emphasized career preparation and “college training increase(s) job options.” To create and implement plans of study based on possible career interests, faculty can help students access college and career readiness programs. Student plans for transition should consider that an individual has many interests and may want to minor or double major in an area to support multiple interests. Shaw, et al, (2010) argue flexibility is a factor in student success, stating, “(C)olleges must remember academic adjustments” (p. 51). College is a time for the student to pursue new thought avenues in defining academic needs. Transition plans should include flexibility for academic growth in the postsecondary environment.

Planned Adaptations

As the student progresses through college into career, conditions of need change as the student develops. College degree plans serve as a guide for achieving degrees; however, also important is the academic equivalent to a bug-out plan – meaning a “What happens if…” plan. The “What happens if” plan considers the student’s human needs as a core component of curriculum. Additionally, it is an example that demonstrates the advantages of individually based process teaching methods that adapt to the student’s transitioning personal history and physical needs. To help the student progress, faculty can apply adaptive teaching methods to access the student’s abilities and build personal supports, lesson frameworks, and engaging instruction. Lofkuist and Dawes (1980) argue, “The ecological model of adaptations allows teachers to consider the relationship of an individual with an environment – whether the environment is home, school, a community setting, or a future job” (p. 258). Considering the student’s personal history and environment, faculty, as an adaptive teacher, can consider, “Why does this student act and perform in these particular ways?” Complex interactions can exist between the way the student performs and the world around them. Because faculty can be a contributing factor of student success, the teacher who considers the student’s transforming conditions of need and performance will more likely affect student success.

Aspects of College Life

Campus Size and Learning Support Services: Program fit is more important than campus location. For a successful educational match, the student should consider schools that offer majors that align with interests and career goals (as well as support services appropriate to academic needs) within a comfortable environment.

Study Habits: The student should determine the kind of environment personally required for learning. Learning Support Services may include formal programs in assistive technology and testing accommodations, and trained staff to help students with language, writing, organization, study skills, and how to schedule daily blocks of study time. Study Habits can include learning how to:

  • divide long-term assignments

  • create a calendar with due-dates, projects, and semester breaks
  • practice strategies for taking notes, recording lectures

  • create Word document examples that follow writing styles (such as APA or MLA).

Personal and Financial Management: The farther away the college is located from home, the more the first-generation college student will have to navigate independent living. Personal maintenance often includes laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, and childcare, as well as beginning to get comfortable meeting / interacting with new individuals. Independent postsecondary living may also include managing a personal budget that involves scholarships, tuition payments, internships, and food and transportation expenses.

Closing Points

College can offer social change and communication challenges to first-generation college students. Additionally, if the student is balancing employment, family, and school, the student may be tired and just not involved in academic engagement. Creating a support system can help ease the pressure of balancing life and goals. In preparing for future success, students may find assistance with a transition plan that builds communication through self-efficacy, adapts to academic growth in the postsecondary environment, and guides personal management.


Camarena, P. & Sarigiani, P. (2009). Postsecondary educational aspirations of high-functioning adolescents with autism spectrum disorders and their parents. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 24, 115-128.

Gardner, S. K., & Holley, K. A. (2011). “Those Invisible Barriers Are Real”: The Progression of First-Generation Students through Doctoral Education. Equity & Excellence In Education, 44(1), 77-92.

Lofkuist, L. & Dawes, R. (1980). Vocational needs, work reinforcers and job satisfaction. In B. Bolton & D. Cook, (Eds.). Rehabilitation client assessment. Baltimore: University Park Press.

Shaw, S., Madaus, J., & Dukes III, L. (2010). Preparing Students with Disabilities for College Success: A practical guide to transition planning. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.