Winning Proposal to the Sarri Family Fellowship: 2017 Competition

Project Title: “Did i 'work hard' or 'get lucky'? First-Generation Students' Unverstanding of their Success

Faculty Sponsor: Sonya Dal Cin

Graduate Student: Neil Lewis, Jr.

Project Description

Five percent of the students who matriculated to the University of Michigan last fall were the first in their families to ever attend college (UM Student Life, 2016). Despite the hope that these students and their families have for the better life a college education will bring them, the evidence suggests their odds of success are compromised by them simply being the first to make this journey. First generation students are less likely to graduate from college (Horn, 1998; Ishitani, 2006; Nunez & Curraco-Alamin, 1998; Riehl, 1994), and even when they do graduate, they are less likely to do so in a timely manner (Ishitani, 2003, 2006) which results in them accruing more debt along the way than their continuing generation counterparts (Carter, 2016). Why is it more difficult for first-generation students to succeed in college? Prior research has documented several structural factors that contribute to generational disparities in college achievement. Compared to continuing-generation students, first-generation students: (a) are more likely to have attended under-resourced high schools (and as a result, to have often received worse high school preparation; Braxton, Duster, & Pascarella, 1988), (b) have greater difficulty navigating university institution bureaucracies such as financial aid and course registration (Reeves, Murphy, D’Mello, & Yeager, 2016), and (c) are more likely to have to work during college in order to fund their education (Hoachlander, Sikora, & Horn, 2003).

In addition to these structural barriers, students’ understanding and interpretation of their college experiences, including their perception of how and why they got into college in the first place, are another potentially important factor explaining the generational achievement gap in college (Aelenei, Lewis, & Oyserman, 2016). First generation students are less likely than continuing-generation students to feel like they feel like they belong on campus and more likely to experience imposter syndrome (Gardner, & Holley, 2011). Imposter syndrome is characterized by attributing one’s successes to “luck” and other external sources (Brauer & Wolf, 2016), and is associated with adverse outcomes such as experiencing persistent fears of being exposed as a “fraud” (Gardner, & Holley, 2011). This diminished sense of belonging is associated with increased depression (Hagerty & Williams, 1999) and decreased academic persistence (Lewis, Sekaquaptewa, & Meadows, 2017). What remains unclear is the timeline of when these feelings emerge. Does imposter syndrome develop only after being on campus, or might first-generation students doubt their abilities before they even arrive? Identifying the origins of first-generation students’ imposter syndrome is important for identifying points for intervention. If these feelings emerge before college, then interventions designed to reduce imposter syndrome and improve outcomes for first generation students should occur before they arrive on campus (e.g. Yeager et al., in press). However, if these feelings emerge after students arrive on campus, then different strategies should be adopted (e.g. Walton & Cohen, 2011).