Integrated, Marginal, and Resilient: Race, Class, and the Diverse Experiences of White First-Generation College Students

Jan. 15, 2011

Source: International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Vol. 24, No. 1, January–February 2011, 117–136.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The purpose of this study is to gain a better understanding of the experiences of persistent, first-generation students.

The author was interested to examine:
How do first-generation, white, working-class students understand their college experiences, especially in terms of their academic and social adjustment?
Moreover, what kinds of factors seem to help or hinder their adjustment to college life?


During the 2003–2004 academic year, the author conducted in-depth interviews with 28 white, first-generation, working-class students attending two institutions of higher education. All of these students were traditional-aged sophomores and juniors (19–21), half were enrolled in a large, public university (‘Big State’), and half were enrolled in a small liberal arts college (‘Benton College’). Fifteen were females and 13 males.

Discussion and Conclusions

The author found three patterns of adjustment among these students.
First, slightly more than half of these students expressed few feelings of alienation or disengagement. These students seemed well-integrated into campus life.
Second, about a quarter of these students experienced persistent and debilitating feelings of marginality, resulting in social and academic disengagement.
Finally, another quarter overcame their feelings of marginality en route to becoming socially and academically engaged. Some of these students transformed their feelings of alienation as motivation for involvement and social change.

The author argues that the diverse experiences of these students who come from working-class backgrounds depends on their economic resources. Students who came from more economically stable families arrived on campus with resources that facilitated their adjustment.

Moreover, the author argues that whiteness functioned as an asset and a liability, facilitating adjustment to college life for some and complicating it for others.
Because whiteness is correlated with higher levels of socioeconomic status, it may act as a default signal for middle-class status (Morris 2005). In this sense, whiteness functions as an asset, providing a sense of invisibility and similarity that allows these students to ‘blend in’.
For students who feel isolated because of their economic disadvantage, whiteness acts as a liability, hindering the possibility that they may identify others with whom they might share experiences and from whom they might draw strength or a sense of validation.

The author claims that one way in which some first-generation students were able to become more fully engaged in college was through programs targeted at underrepresented college students. The author recommends that perhaps the best programs are those that are compulsory, so that students do not feel stigmatized or in need of remediation; those where they can participate in learning communities and service work, both of which have been found to enhance academic development (Astin and Sax 1998).

Astin, A., and L. Sax. 1998. How undergraduates are affected by service participation. Journal of College Student Development 39, no. 3: 251–63.

Morris, E.W. 2005. From ‘middle class’ to ‘trailer trash’: Teachers’ perceptions of white students in a predominantly minority school. Sociology of Education 78, no. 2: 99–121.

Updated: Mar. 12, 2012