First Generation Students and the Academic Library

It was the end of the semester and the library was filled with sleepy students stumbling towards project and paper deadlines. For as many students as I’ve emailed and met with this year, I wondered about students who need my help, but who, for whatever reason, don’t know that I’m available to support their research. It made me wonder – who did I miss?

Earlier this winter, I had the opportunity to co-lead a seminar with my friend and collaborator Carla Martin. Together, we talked about how faculty, librarians, technologists, and administrators can effectively support first generation college students. Cultivating and sustaining diversity in higher education is a passion of mine. As librarians collaborate with various constituencies across campus to foster student success, I am very interested in looking to see how librarians and technologists can act in solidarity with all of our students, not just the ones who know we are there to help them.

The question of how librarians can best help first generation students began to percolate when I heard Susan Gibbons talk about her seminal work with the Rochester Study, her brilliant collaboration with anthropologist Nancy Foster Fried. In it, Gibbons and Fried studied library users at the University of Rochester and then made recommendations on how to improve services and spaces in libraries that better reflect the needs and behaviors of students. One of their findings was that when many students come to a roadblock with their academic work or research, they go to their parents for help. This development was not something librarians at Rochester expected, but was one that made sense given the rise of the ‘helicopter parent’ generation. Librarians at Rochester responded to this shift by holding library orientations at the beginning of the year for *parents* as opposed to orientations for entering students. Their message: “when you kid calls for help, refer him/her to a *librarian*.” For many students at Rochester, this message was effective. Students called parents, who sent them to librarians. Other institutions have followed suit, prioritizing orienting parents at the start of the year rather than entering students.

This strategy works with many students – here at Hampshire, we did a very successful parent orientation in the library this fall. However, it left me wondering about first generation students, many of whom do not go to their parents when they are in academic distress, many of whose parents might not have even attended orientation themselves. Who did we miss? Who do we continue to miss? 

During orientations, libraries can partner with student life programs aimed at underrepresented students who might already be on campus early for their own pre-orientations programs before the general ones for all entering students begins. Maybe that’s an opportunity to do some targeted programming?

I also think that there are ways that we can amend our practices to be more inclusive generally. During our ISIS session, Carla talked about creating inclusive guidelines for her courses that depended less on outside knowledge or cultural capital and primarily on knowledge acquired and gained in the class itself. As librarians, we should not make assumptions about what our students know or don’t know. When we teach research education sessions, we must teach to everyone. When we meet with students one on one, we should try to ask holistic questions that help students move beyond screen issues to get to the heart of their obstacles. It might not be about sources for a paper, but  about something else entirely. We must be able to refer them to support services across campus to address their concerns.

First generation students contribute mightily to their campuses. They bring a unique perspective; some are international students, others at many elite colleges might hail from underrepresented parts of the United States, others might be veterans who served their country prior to enrolling in college. Colleges and universities are rich, dynamic communities that can provide all students with unique learning communities in their dorms, in their classrooms, and over meals. But first generation students sit at many intersections and cross many demographics in colleges and universities. We know they’re there, but we don’t always know how best to reach them. That’s why sessions like the ISIS one Carla and I co-facilitated are important: better serving our first generation students should be a priority in all higher education libraries, at big public universities and small liberal arts colleges. How can we make inclusive policies and procedures that incorporate and include all the students we serve? How can we design programming to reach students who go to their parents – or don’t – or utilize other campus constituencies to help them along during their college years?