“You don't know what you don't know.” It's a phrase that Marcus Wright, Undergraduate Program Manager and Academic Coordinator in the Department of Sociology, says perfectly sums up the challenges faced by first-generation students. Wright's paper, “Generation-Blindness and the COVID-19 Websites of Highly Selective Universities,” addresses what he refers to as a blind spot on the part of universities in regard to communicating with first-generation students. It was published as part of the Penn Education and Inequality Working Papers series within the Department of Sociology. But it goes far beyond COVID. Wright says higher education's failure to recognize “the whole person” and the myriad challenges first-generation students face—in and out of college—not only puts tremendous pressure on first-generation students to figure out the answers, but robs the university of the unique contributions these students offer.
Below, Wright, who is also a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Education, explains how his own experience as a first-generation student fueled a passion for advocacy, and what is at stake if the issues aren’t addressed.
What led you to your research regarding first-generation students?
I looked at going to college as this chance to really just go have a lot of fun, explore new things, and meet new people, but there was so much more I didn't even know that I didn't know. I became invested in researching inequality in access, choice, outcomes, and experiences in higher education after reading Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton. It talked about how students who were working class would go to college and do the same things that other students who were more well off would do, but the students who were well off had connections, or their parents had connections, so they didn't necessarily need to put in the same amount of work as the working-class students to build up their capital while in college. The working-class students following the same track got left high and dry because they were unaware that, due to various structural and systemic inequalities, the deck was stacked against them and following the path of the well-off students was unlikely to pay off for them equally. As I read this book I thought, “Oh, this was me. I totally misjudged this whole college thing.” I learned more about the terminology of “first-generation students” and discovered that I am one. These realizations really drive a lot of what I'm doing currently in terms of trying to break down barriers for first-generation students and push for more equity and better opportunity.
Why did you decide to use university COVID-19 websites as your litmus test?
Everything is remote now. This unprecedented pandemic created a situation where the universities all felt like they had to put up a dedicated COVID-19 website to maintain communication with students and their families. This was an opportunity, when all the chips were down, to gain some insight on what the priorities of these institutions really were. Considering the onset of the pandemic, when so much was unknown about the virus, institutions had to think, “What are the most critical things we need to put on this website?” Once we see what made it to the websites, we can determine that anything that's not on there was not considered enough of a priority to be included on these important public-facing vehicles of communication. Sometimes, in making the choices of what goes into messaging like this, institutions are unaware that they are deprioritizing certain issues that heavily impact underrepresented students. In essence, this could be emblematic of a larger problem at the institution. This is why I came up with the term “generation-blindness” to describe how institutions overlook or undervalue issues critically important to first-generation students, with these websites serving as a visual example.
We also know that a higher proportion of students of color are first-generation, and that COVID-19 has had damaging impacts on communities of color. The students’ families are being impacted in all different kinds of ways, whether it’s losing their jobs or persevering through pre-existing health conditions. First-generation students have a lot of that on their minds at the same time that they're trying to navigate this whole sense of belonging in college. They're dealing with a lot of different components that compound on each other to create a potentially maddening daily experience.
What did your analysis of the websites reveal?
I analyzed the COVID-19 websites of 24 highly selective universities. I reviewed the landing page of each site, and if there was an undergraduate student link on these pages in relation to the pandemic, I reviewed that as well. My hunch was that these were the pages that an undergraduate first-generation student would go to first, so I looked to see how many of the pages mentioned the term “first-generation students” at all. Only one of the websites did. I then checked to see if the sites at least addressed the concerns of first-generation students, which I collected from the student newspapers of these institutions, related to the onset of the pandemic. Although the institutions addressed a lot of concerns that first-generation students had, they severely underprioritized the concerns that were the most salient, ones that dealt mostly with the home and families of these students.
Does this generation-blindness manifest elsewhere?
In advising students—especially in the Sociology department where we have quite a few first-generation students—hearing their stories really put a fire to me. It came to a head when one student told me that they did not feel like they belonged at Penn. This was one of the smartest students I've ever seen. I was just baffled and heartbroken by that. Why do we always put all of the pressure on the students to figure things out at our institutions? We say, “The institution is this, so the students need to learn how to do this.” I think it should be the opposite. We as institutions need to reimagine ourselves so that we're better at valuing and rewarding what first-generation students bring to our institution.
For example, the first-generation students that I've had were always exceptionally hard-working. They weren't just motivated by grades. They had this unbelievable energy about them. They wanted to be the best version of themselves that they could possibly be. We do not think about the fact that while they're sitting in the classroom, they may be thinking about how they're going to support their family back home. We could do something to alleviate that anxiety beforehand, such as forming better relationships with their families, as opposed to waiting until things wind up in crisis mode. That’s going to require our institutions to make major, historically defining changes. There's a lot that we could do better that helps us to acknowledge first-generation students as whole human beings.
Are there long-term risks when it comes to “generation-blindness?”
I worry about what happens after these students graduate. Are they getting the same job opportunities that continuing-generation students are getting? Do they feel comfortable enough to connect with our alumni? Are they comfortable enough to reach back out to people that work at Penn when they need a recommendation letter? We measure success based on whether first-generation students graduate, but they graduate at great rates from highly selective universities, so that's not the issue. The way we treat them—that makes all the difference. That’s where we come up short. So, I think it's very important for me to continue to look at these institutions and really hold them accountable.
Where I am right now in life, and where I've been able to get to, is so much a product of so many people helping me, and so I feel such a duty and obligation to give back in different ways. I can relate to the struggles and the thoughts that my first-generation students go through, the imposter syndrome, continuously asking myself “Who am I to say we need to change anything?” I've had to struggle with that for a long time. But this issue has given me just the motivation to tell myself, “There’s no looking back. You have to do it. You have to push for it. You have to be in those conversations.” There are too many students we are letting down if we don’t urgently address our generation-blindness.