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You are reading: Choices, challenges and changes: Exploring transition, persistence and engagement for first generation, female university students

Thesis written by Dr Sarah E. O’ Shea


Beginning university study can initiate feelings of fear and self-doubt as students acculturate to a new and somewhat alien environment. For those individuals who have no friends or family members to provide guidance as they adapt to this university culture, such feelings can only be exacerbated. The lack of research that examines the processes of transition, persistence and engagement from the perspective of those involved has been noted in the literature. Hence, this study set out to outline how one group of female students, all of whom are the first in the family to attend university, subjectively experience this first year of study.

Seventeen students were recruited to participate in a series of four semi-structured interviews conducted throughout one academic year. These interviews investigated the processes involved in transition as well as the types of fears and perceptions held about engaging in tertiary study and the hurdles encountered during the year. These richly detailed narratives define the meanings individuals attach to the university setting, and also provide insight into the personal motivation and persistence required when engaging in this environment.

Research that seeks to give voice to actual student experience assists understanding about the higher education sector. The Interpretivist approach assisted in producing a study that questions traditional notions concerning what it means to be a first year student and indicates how this reality is both constructed and negotiated. This framework has been further informed by both grounded theory and narrative analysis in order to highlight how individuals move through an environment characterised by flux and transformation. The result is a study that recognises the diverse and heterogeneous nature of this tertiary landscape and gathers data from the students themselves in order to inform future university policy and practice.

Read more: Choices, challenges and changes: Exploring transition, persistence and engagement for first generation, female university students (3.3Mb)

About Dr Sarah O’ Shea
Dr Sarah O’Shea is a Senior Lecturer in The Faculty of Education and is Coordinator of Adult, Vocational and Higher Education at the University of Wollongong. Sarah has experience teaching in universities as well as the VET and Adult Education sector, and has also published widely on issues related to educational access and equity.

Prior to her current position, Sarah was managing a Student Transition and Retention Unit; in this capacity, she managed a $300,000 HEPPP grant which was researching approaches to improving the university teaching and learning experience for students from low SES backgrounds. Sarah completed her Doctor of Philosophy in Education at the University of Sydney.

Featured publications
The Critical Interventions Framework Part 3 (CIF 3) focuses on evaluative studies which provide details of the impacts of specific interventions on equity groups in relation to access to and success in higher education.
A case study documenting the transition of one Indigenous student, Robbie, from an underprivileged school located in the Western suburbs of Sydney to an urban Australian university.