Building Community for First-Generation Students and their Families

By Jeanine Cunningham

December 2023

To conclude the Knowledge Center blog series on supporting first-generation college students within the California State University (CSU) system, we sat down with two members of the CSU Student Success Network (Network) Advisory Board, Susanna Jones, Ph.D., M.S.W., at San Francisco State and Nadine Kelley, Ed.D, at Sacramento State, to discuss their experiences in working with first-generation students and approaches to fostering student success.

In our first blog, we focused upon definitions, drawing attention to both the intersectional nature of being first-generation and the fact that “first-generation college student” is a widely variable concept across institutions. In the second blog, we drew upon literature and practical examples to identify strengths-based, student ready strategies for supporting first-generation students. In this post, we talk with Jones and Kelley to gain practitioners’ perspectives of how their respective roles and institutions support first-generation college students. Interviews are edited for length and clarity.

Susanna Jones, Ph.D., M.S.W., First-Year Experience Faculty Director, San Francisco State

Network: What is your current role at San Francisco State?

SJ: I’m the First-Year Experience Faculty Director at San Francisco State. I’ve been in this role for a year. I was previously an Assistant Dean for Student Success in the College of Health and Social Sciences for four years, and before that I was the Director of the School of Social Work and a social worker by training.

Network: In relation to your role, what is your philosophy on supporting student success?

SJ: Understanding student success must come from truly understanding our students. Without an examination of and connection to our students we have the potential to create false narratives and misunderstandings about what student success means. Historically, student success is most prominently connected to retention rates, graduation rates, and persistence rates. I value those metrics, but I also like to think about it from a much more holistic standpoint that includes the students’ academic journey from kindergarten through college. That means getting to know our students and where they’re coming from. Their educational experiences. Their multiple identities. Also, their own understanding about what education is for them and what they want it to be. I think that the more that we talk to students, the better we are at developing a much more nuanced understanding of student success.

Each fall semester, anywhere from 3000 to 3500 first-time freshmen arrive and they’re a vast group. We pay attention to who the incoming students are and I try to surround myself as much as I can with these first-time freshmen to get a sense of what success means for them. We know what it means for us: what does it mean for them? We work to connect those two bridges.

Network: How does your campus define a first-generation college student?

SJ: At San Francisco State, we use the Chancellor’s Office definition of first generation, which is: students who report that neither parent attended any college. That excludes students who report that their parents attended college and didn’t graduate as well as students with parents whose education is unknown.

Network: What are some of the attributes of first-generation college students at San Francisco State?

SJ: Thirty-percent of all of our undergraduate students are first generation. That number is on the rise for incoming first-time freshman. In the fall 2022 first-time freshman cohort, 34% were first generation and the majority of those students were also underrepresented minorities.

Network: What kinds of actions are critical for supporting first-generation students?

SJ: Connecting with families is critical. Bringing first-generation students’ families into the fold during the onboarding and pre-arrival periods, and throughout the first year, is critical. We think of connecting with first-generation students as a community-educational experience for families. During orientation for new students, we invite all students to bring a parent or guardian or family member—and we provide translation for Spanish-speaking families—so, for families with a first-generation college student, we can connect with them and demystify what the college experience is like.

In our First-Year Experience peer mentor program, we hire and train peer mentors to provide supports and networks to all students, but they are also trained to think about the unique needs of first-generation students. In fact, most of my peer mentors are first-generation students, so the peer mentor program brings into the fold the mentors themselves, who look like the students we’re serving. Another peer mentoring program at San Francisco State called PEER2PEER launched in 2019 in the College of Health and Social Sciences. We launched the program with the intent to reduce equity gaps for our first-generation and underrepresented minority students. We saw a larger number of students arrive and stay through census in that first fall, which we believe is the result of PEER2PEER. So, what I’ve learned over the course of doing both the student success work and the First-Year Experience is that peer support is like no other.

When you talk about the first-generation population you’re talking about a vast continuum of students from different backgrounds. Being able to be nimble and provide a variety of resources and supports for our students is critical. Across the entire campus, we’re trying to be more mindful of and aware of first-generation status by talking with students about what their needs are and then providing supports and resources based on what we’re learning from those conversations and what we know from data.

Network: How does your campus help first-generation students navigate institutional barriers?

SJ: We develop an understanding of the positionality of our incoming students and an understanding of the reality of what first-generation means at the beginning of their higher education life cycle, extending over time. Our job as an institution is to better equip students as they move from first year to second to third to fourth, and so on.

Probably much like all of the CSUs, Graduation Initiative 2025 pushed us to reduce equity gaps. The approach at San Francisco State is that when you lift barriers for one group of students, you’re benefiting the student body as a whole. So, every action and step that we take needs to be conscious and intentional. For example, faculty are being invited into Graduation Initiative conversations where they’re thinking about their own students’ identity in the classroom. They’re being encouraged to use disaggregated data to make decisions and to better understand the populations they’re working with.

At the college level, we’re trying to help faculty use the dashboard. Look at their course data, examine DFW rates, and how those are impacting first-generation students at rates that are maybe different than non-first-generation students.

Nadine Kelley, Ed.D., Senior Director for University Housing Services, Sacramento State

Network: What is your current role at Sacramento State?

NK: I currently serve as the Senior Director for University Housing Services for our North Village residential on-campus housing area, where we serve a little over 2100 students. The majority of students are first years with some who are upper division.

The work I do specifically as a Senior Director entails the general oversight of two areas within university housing services: housing business operations and residential education. Housing business operations gets students and families interested in the idea of on-campus housing, what it is that we do, and what we can provide. Once students get to campus, the residential education team is there to carry out all the things we said that the students and the families will get out of the experience. I have a very sizable team of professional staff that lead those efforts in both of those arms.

Network: In relation to your role, what is your philosophy on supporting student success?

NK: Supporting student success is multifaceted. My philosophy derives from understanding what students’ needs are and what success looks like for them. We have our specific success matrix, right? But for some students just getting to class every day is a success. Students come into Sacramento State at different levels. They move into housing at different stages of their life. They have different life circumstances. So, we try to find a balance of providing them what they need based on what we know in student development theory and practice, while meeting them where they are to provide [relevant] guidance.

I think to have student success means that students are trusting the institution to guide them through being successful, and a lot of that is creating an environment where they see themselves. There are some students for whom graduating in four years is not something that they need: it’s about making it past that first semester, then that next semester, and then being able to celebrate those small successes and just being overjoyed in the end. You did it! We knew you could do it! It shouldn’t be a surprise when they get to graduation, it should be: this is what was expected! And you had all these micro-successes along the way that we were able to celebrate, and even some challenges that we were able to work through!

Network: Which is also a success!

NK: Yes, right! Navigating what it means to be a young person in today’s society in the current higher education climate is so very different from when many of us were in school. So yeah, success looks different for every student, and you’ve got to meet them where they are, as best as possible.

Network: So, what do today’s students need?

NK: They need face-to-face personal time. Once you talk to them, ask them about themselves, they start to blossom and open up. Having staff available when students need them is really important: the need for students to have someone—even another student—available to answer their questions is important. They want to be heard.

Network: How does Sacramento State define a first-generation college student?

NK: On the website, they’ve broken it down into the following criteria: a student whose parents (natural or adoptive) did not receive a baccalaureate degree; a student who, prior to the age of 18, regularly resided with and received support from only one parent and whose supporting parent did not receive a baccalaureate degree; and a student who, prior to the age of 18, did not regularly reside with nor receive support from a natural or adoptive parent.

Based on the definition of first-generation, more of our student population is labeled first-generation, but that label holds different meanings and different realities for students.

Network: What are some of the attributes of first-generation college students at Sacramento State?

NK: I think the challenge is that we don’t really highlight and talk about that very specific group in the way that we identify and talk about other groups such as Guardian Scholars, student athletes, student parents. When it comes to first-generation students, that information is held within the enrollment area. So as someone who works in housing, I will not know who of my students are first-generation unless I reach out to institutional research and ask for data on my student population. I also find out through relationships, conversations, and asking students about themselves.

When our students are in a financial bind, having billing concerns and issues, that’s often when we find out how many family members are involved in a student’s educational journey and what their experience is.

Network: What kinds of actions are critical for supporting first-generation students within your role?

NK: A willingness to explain, clear communication, being honest with people, and making sure there are options for moving forward. Even when students have had to step away from campus I always try to let them know: you might not be returning next semester, but please understand that there’s always a pathway back to Sacramento State, and you’re welcome to reach out to us. We will provide whatever support possible. I think that message is important, especially for first-generation college students, because the environment in high school is different.

Network: How do you get to know students?

NK: I try to participate in different activities. I go to sporting events. I go and support other campus events, like the Black Student Union might send out newsletters and I look to see what I can do. I’ll sign myself up to help out with something that’s not in my area so I’m able to engage and get to know students in a different way.

The benefits are twofold when it comes to getting out there and having people know you: first, you get to know students and second, when your colleagues get to know you, they refer students to you so that students can feel, almost like, a full basket of support. It’s like, oh, you’re having this issue in housing. Do you know Nadine? You know, you can head over there and just let me do a warm handoff in that situation. I think you have to be willing to not just engage with students, but engage with your colleagues so that you can be trusted for them to hand off a very important relationship that they have with a student.

Network: How does your campus help first-generation students navigate institutional barriers?

NK: Based off of the definition of first-generation … the definition encompasses a lot of students. What I and my team try to do is provide as much education as possible. When a student is having a financial issue, we don’t just send them to financial aid. We ask the questions for the student, try to gather as much information as possible, and then we ask the financial aid office can I send this student over to your office to talk to you specifically?

We know that the majority of first-generation students are Students of Color and from marginalized populations. And we know that there’s an issue of equity and access because that is how the system has been set up in terms of operating systemically to keep people out of different places and spaces. That’s why there’s value and importance in looking at our policies and procedures from a lens of addressing equity and how we can remove barriers automatically. It should be us removing the barriers and not the students having to break through.