Research reveals obstacles for first-generation students

According to ongoing research conducted by Christina Cruz, research analyst for the Office of Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity (OSPID), some first-generation college students may be hindered from fully thriving at the College due to financial differences and a number of other “stumbling blocks.”

Cruz is advised by the Diversity Research Advisory Team (DRAT). “[Our initial data] confirmed that there are differing experiences for them vis-à-vis students who are not on financial aid and knew they would be going to college as a very young age,” said Cruz, who holds a Ph.D. in educational research and has also served at the College as head women’s crew coach and as a project manager at Facilities.
She explained that although students affirm the success of the College’s efforts to equalize financial backgrounds, some face other pressures such as insufficient means to go out to eat or travel, or time constraints due to work-study jobs. “But, most troubling is that it just makes them feel different, sometimes like they don’t belong here,” she said.

Other “standout stumbling blocks” that the team discovered were tensions within the entry/Junior Advisor system, as well as the academic advising system.
According to Mike Reed, co-principle investigator for DRAT and vice president for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity, this research has already informed some revisions in first-year advising and the structure of First Days. “I am very pleased with what we have begun to learn from the research,” he said, noting that the team was still analyzing hours of video footage from focus groups. “We have yet to concretize the findings and produce specific recommendations [beyond advising and orientation].”

DRAT, which meets twice a week, also includes Chris Winters, director of institutional research; Gina Coleman, associate dean; Lili Rodriguez, associate director of Admission; Molly Magavern, coordinator of special academic programs and Christine Williams ’06.

This project commenced in November 2007 when Cruz was hired by the OSPID to conduct a qualitative study on the experiences of first-generation college students at the College. “We know that the academic experience is supposed to be very difficult and stretch students to grow and think in ways quite different than their secondary school experience,” Reed said. “But we did not want to make the Williams experience hard in other areas. That’s what we set out to try to understand.”

After her initial findings revealed the “stumbling blocks” mentioned above, Cruz interviewed eight seniors individually late last spring. She then spent the summer studying the stories using a narrative analysis methodology. According to Cruz, “what stood out in those interviews was that there are underlying feelings of racism, classism and sexism on campus that students can’t talk about; that the campus is divided into groups with very few mechanisms to bridge the groups and that the treatment of women on the weekends is at times inappropriate.”

She added that these findings are neither surprising nor Williams-specific, but “many of the students said something to this effect, paraphrasing: These are not Williams’ problems, but they do happen here at Williams.”

The next stage of research was collecting data this past fall to either substantiate or disprove the findings. “Some students feel these problems exist and others do not,” Cruz said. “I do not discount either opinion. I believe the issues exist, but not everyone feels them.”

Until June 30, the scheduled completion of the project, Cruz will be creating video and written documents for the College. “DRAT is constantly brainstorming initiatives to address some of what we see in the data,” Cruz said.

Given her background in feminist and critical theories, Cruz did not find any of the trends unexpected in themselves. “However, what may have surprised me the most, and is a critical finding in its own right, is how much the students wanted to talk about their troubling issues,” she said. Cruz added that there may be a lack of opportunities for such conversations, citing a focus group of African American men who continued the discussion for over 2.5 hours before she and Reed had to cut it short.

Despite the College’s success in cultivating representational diversity in the student body, Reed observed, “We still are not at the point where all our diverse populations experience Williams academically, socially and individually in ways that do not differ significantly from our traditional populations.”

Beginning July 1, Reed will serve concurrently in his current position and as interim vice president for Alumni Relations and Development until a new College president has been selected. Meanwhile, Associate Dean of Institutional Diversity Wendy Raymond, who has worked in OSPID part-time for the last two years, will serve this office in a full-time capacity. Reed said he does not anticipate the operations of either office changing significantly during this transitional period.