Autoethnography: A Critical View of Roles, Diversity and Assimilation Culture in First-Generation Students

Introduction

Upon reflecting where my place in the education system is, I found it is nearly impossible to separate my place in society from this place in education. According to Winship, C., & Mandel, M. (1983)., a person’s role in society classifies their position across social networks as well as being a large component of a person’s position in society. Furthermore, our roles in society are essential to where we place ourselves in that relative position. In my lifetime, I have had the role of being a female, daughter, sister, friend, student, teacher, worker and many more. It is these roles in which I am able to establish myself in the current position of being a first-generation college student.  

As a first-generation college student, my experiences may be vastly different from those whose family members had attended college and have a firm foundation of this lived experience. Having family who have been in similar roles and positions in education not only helps to build community, but allows for guidance when roles irrevocably change. Being the only person in a family to have graduated from the standard four year college and continue higher education at the graduate level sounds incredible, and it is a commendable accomplishment.  Duffin, E. (2021) reports as of 2016, that roughly 20% of college students identified as first-generation female students. Being a first-generation college student is one of my many roles, but not the only one. I am composed of many special roles and characteristics that have all molded me into the person I am today. I am opposed to surrendering my identity to one role, so who am I? How have I been able to explore myself and my role in society?

Self- Exploration 

As a member of the community of first-generation students, where to find your role and identity can be a turning point in life. While being a student is a large component to many individual’s identities, it is more deeply rooted than that label. I find the key to exploring who someone is and their comfort in finding new roles likely stems from family dynamic. After all, family structure is the building foundation for any individual’s life outcomes and often our role in family structures directly translates to societal role. Being the only female in my family has always brought about challenges and expectations placed on me. I am not only the sole girl, but I am the oldest child in my family as well. If anyone has a similar family structure, the level of responsibility often placed on the first born is likely resonating with them.  Voo , J. (n.d.), in the article titled “Birth Order Traits: Your Guide to Sibling Personality Differences” explains first born children are typically given vast amounts of responsibilities and are often pegged as “mini-adults”. Additionally, Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., a child and family therapist in White Plains, New York states, “They’re typically inflexible—they don’t like change and are hesitant to step out of their comfort zone,“. When I had started to reflect upon who I am, truly at my core, the birth order concept was one that seemed to enable my first roles in life. Growing up, many likely felt the weight of the responsibility of being the oldest child. It goes without saying that a child’s role in their family can directly influence their role in all other aspects of their lives. It was always my role to be the responsible, reliable and structured one in the family; the one my siblings looked to. Naturally, this responsibility has molded me into someone who values structure and is hesitant to change. Being hesitant to change in an ever-evolving environment is simply not the key to a fulfilling and productive life. If this is all I have ever been exposed to, how could I ever know differently? How could the family structure and role in the community impact a first-generation student?

Life Changes

Enduring any life changes can bring about feelings of anxiety but can also be exhilarating. Wanting more for oneself, such as a higher education, is an exponentially large turning point in life. No one in my family had explored the idea of higher education, nor did my small town particularly encourage it. The town I had grown up in was relatively small and not diverse in any sense of the word. According to City Data in the year 2019, the town of North Ridgeville that I grew up in was inhabited by 88.6% of white individuals. In addition to a primarily white community, only 10% of the population enrolled into Undergraduate Studies and further only roughly 2-3% enrolling in Graduate Studies. Being in an environment that did not necessarily lend itself to diversity, openness and education can have various implications. I recall a time clearly when I was openingly talking to my guidance counselor about college. She had said that most people here do not go to college, but they just stick around the area and find local jobs. When I heard her say that, my initial reaction was to agree with her, because it was simply the truth given the statistics. But the issue with her statement was the complacency of the cycle in which this town was exhibiting. Due to the demographic of the town being primarily white and not necessarily educated, I remember being surprised that the education system in place was not encouraging their students to pursue more; to move away and experience life and education outside of the city lines.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to stay within city lines indefinitely, that is not the problematic portion of the lived experience I endured. Alternatively, it is the notion that no effort for diversity was made. Often, individuals think that diversity is solely a matter of race and that is the extent to it. Diversity however is all inclusive, such as a variety of races, ethnicities, socio-economic statuses, religions, sexual orientations, lived experiences, and the primary focus from my lived-experience; education. When the city’s education system is not one that encourages, let alone converses exploring diversity, it can make the individuals living there experience negative implications later on in life. The world is far and wide, densely populated with every sort of person one could possibly imagine. School’s not making an effort for diversity and being complacent with the nature of the system is doing a disservice to all the student’s present and future endeavors. The argument for what the purpose of school is has been a longstanding debate. Is the education system responsible for teaching and encouraging diversity? Is it the responsibility of the school to teach students the importance of embracing diversity, or is it the work of the family and community? Drexel University School of Education notes the importance of diversity and cultural awareness in the classroom. Student’s who are exposed to education systems that make it a priority to include diversity give them the ability to gain a better understanding of lessons and others. When the school system in place teaches the students about diversity and how it is needed, it allows for the opportunity of open-mindedness. Specifically, “By exposing students to a diverse range of opinions, thoughts, and cultural backgrounds, you’re encouraging them to be more open-minded later in life. This will make them open to new ideas, roles and be able to attain a greater comprehension on a topic by taking in different points of view.” In addition to these notable qualities, it was stated that students who are competent in diversity feel more confident and safe later on in life. Making diversity a priority allows for students to interact with a variety of different social groups and individuals, in turn allowing them to feel more comfortable with these interactions throughout their lives. Discomfort or feelings of confusion and animosity stem from not being educated on the topic of diversity. For first-generation students like me who came from towns that did not even breach the topic of diversity are at a drastic disadvantage when trying to find their place and role in higher education. When faced with this disadvantage, it can be easy to forgo your own role and position from your family and community, and assimilate into another one entirely.

Assimilation Culture 

Up until this point, I have challenged myself to think critically about how my lived experiences have influenced my role in education and society. I have noted my upbringing, community and diversity exposure as being the driving factors behind my understanding of self in a broad social context. These lived experiences are similar to many individuals who leave their hometowns in pursuit of discovering more and exploring what the life of higher education has in store for them.

The notion of moving from a small town to a large college can be both daunting and thrilling. Often the overarching question that clouds an individual’s thoughts are where their role in this new setting will be. College has options that are seemingly endless; clubs, sports, classes, relationships, culture, diversity, and much more. Going from being hesitant to change, minimal exposure to diversity and education to being thrown into a world of possibilities, it can be the ultimate shock. While my experience is explicitly mine, many others experience similar states of shock when leaving their home towns to gain a sense of self and belonging amongst higher education.

An interesting phenomenon is assimilation culture within college education. Working off of the assimilationist approach for the purpose of this paper, scholar Antony, J. S. (2002)  states “These theories begin with a normative assumption that the new student needs to internalize the disciplinary norms and be congruent with the values of the field in order to be successful in any given field. Similarly, we see a pattern in this body of literature that frames first-generation college students as the ones who need remediation by comparing their backgrounds, preferences, and outcomes with those of their continuing-generation peers who are viewed as the “norm” in higher education”. Essentially, first-generation students feel the need to assimilate to the culture of whichever institution they are attending. According to this approach, college students take it upon themselves to internalize and assimilate to the norms and values they see not only in their institutions but possibly in their future intended career. These students who do not have the same lived experiences as others who are not first-generation students, feel as though they need to change themselves fundamentally in order to adapt successfully. 

College students want to succeed academically, even if that means assimilating unquestionably to the culture of the institution. Arguably first-generation students feel even higher amounts of pressure in order to achieve the success that their family may have not had the opportunity to. Ladson-Billings (1995) notes that socializing first-generation college students into the normative culture of higher education and their discipline is important for academic success in all realms. In addition to this socialization aspect, it is imperative to consider the relationship between the exposure to diversity growing up and assimilation culture in relation to socialization. As I had noted previously, students who have experienced diversity in their education system, whether through experience or conversations are at an advantage. Students who have this advantage are more likely to be open-minded and much more comfortable when these differences in diversity occur. Specifically, larger institutions typically have vast amounts of diversity and adapting is a vital part of fully embracing the college culture and experience. In order to adapt and thrive in college where the culture, norms and experiences are essentially endless, it is important to recognize where you came from and where you want to be. 

Keeping in the spirit of self- discovery as a first-generation college student, I resonated strongly with the assimilation culture present in the higher education system. When I arrived at my Undergraduate College, I immediately felt out of my depth in terms of diversity and culture. When an individual goes to college, they can reinvent themselves and decide ultimately who they are and who they want to become. The question posed earlier about what my role in higher education would be was immediately challenged. I had to decide, as all college students do, what I valued, what I was passionate about and being willing to meet changes head on. With having little exposure and lived experience with diversity, I remember feeling as though I had to assimilate with the people I resonated with the most around me. Adopting norms and values of the groups of people surrounding me helped me exponentially feel more comfortable in this otherwise foreign environment. It is this feeling of being able to explore what I felt was a fundamental part of me and sharing that likeness with my peers. 

While assimilating can be helpful by allowing a student to feel more comfortable, it can also be problematic in nature. If the culture of the institution is not one that is inclusive or accepting for example, adopting that culture is not of best interest. It is essential at this stage that being educated on diversity and feeling comfortable with that and the socialization component proposed by Ladson-Billings is needed. It is being educated on diversity and socialization that allows students to think critically about their roles in education and the norms they are adopting.  Assimilation culture in higher education is exceedingly common, even if it is done without intention. It can be argued that it is human nature to feel the need to assimilate oneself to the norms and culture of the community in order to find a role and excel within that role. Assimilation is not inherently negative, but when done without regard or intention can lead to first-generation students feeling more at a loss than beforehand. 

It is at this point that I challenge those in the education system to critically examine their upbringing and community. Did you have assigned roles at home? Was the education system in place calling for your community to enact diversity and inclusion? When upbringing embeds particular ideas or ideologies within a person, those can become jumbled when life inevitably changes. Life changing decisions, such as attending college, can show the true impact of an individual’s upbringing and community. As noted previously, assimilation without regard and intention can bring about consequences. In my own lived experience, I went from being in a role of responsibility with minimal exposure to diversity to being thrown into a world of possibilities with vast diversity. It is this change that allows an individual to determine if they want to continue their position and norms they grew up in or create their own. In order to take role changes in stride, one must decide if they are going to assimilate or adapt in other ways. Arguably, education in diversity and where an individual’s place in society is can allow them to find their own identity. First-generation students are treading uncharted waters when they are examining their family structure and community in relation to their place in high education. Being mindful of the working conditions that feed into assimilation in all aspects of life will allow for first-generation students to decide what is important to them and who they want to ultimately become.

References

Antony, J. S. (2002). Reexamining doctoral student socialization and professional development: Moving beyond the congruence and assimilation orientation. In J. C. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (pp. 349–380). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-010-0245-5_8

 Duffin, E. (2021, February 17). First-generation students, by gender and ethnicity U.S. 2016. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/708379/first-generation-students-by-gender-and-ethnicity-us/#:~:text=As%20of%202016%2C%20about%2020,down%20by%20gender%2C%20were%20female.

Drexel University School of Education. (n.d.). The Importance of Diversity in the Classroom. SchoolofEducation.https://drexel.edu/soe/resources/student-teaching/advice/importance-of-cultural-diversity-in-classroom/#:~:text=When%20working%20and%20learning%20with,in%20a%20diverse%20working%20environment. 

Ives, J., & Castillo-Montoya, M. (2020). First-Generation College Students as Academic Learners: A Systematic Review. Review of Educational Research, 90(2), 139–178. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654319899707

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028 312032003465

North Ridgeville, Ohio. North Ridgeville, Ohio (OH 44039) profile: population, maps, real estate, averages, homes, statistics, relocation, travel, jobs, hospitals, schools, crime, moving, houses, news, sex offenders. (2019). http://www.city-data.com/city/North-Ridgeville-Ohio.html.

Voo , J. (n.d.). Birth Order Traits: Your Guide to Sibling Personality Differences. Parents. https://www.parents.com/baby/development/social/birth-order-and-personality/. Winship, C., & Mandel, M. (1983). Roles and Positions: A Critique and Extension of the Blockmodeling Approach. Sociological Methodology, 14, 314. https://doi.org/10.2307/270911

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