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You are reading: Engaging, retaining and supporting first-in-family university students: An OLT Fellowship odyssey

Written by 2016 Office for Learning and Teaching Fellow, Associate Professor Sarah O’ Shea, University of Wollongong

In 2015, I was fortunate enough to receive an OLT Teaching Fellowship, which allowed me to continue working with students who are first in the family to come to university. The Engaging Families to Engage Students (EFEL) fellowship seeks to engage with universities to explore ways to both support and retain first-in-family learners. The fellowship is also exploring approaches to fostering meaningful connections with the family/community of this cohort in order to sustain student engagement.

“Rather than focus on what people lack, better understanding is gained from focusing on strengths in order to develop ways of understanding first-in-family students that seek to challenge notions of access and participation.”
– O’ Shea, 2015

Why focus on first-in-family students?
The term ‘first-in-family’ or ‘first generation’ student is featuring more and more in university rhetoric. In some institutions, new positions such as First Gen Officers have been created in order to better support these learners. This is both a growing cohort but also one in need of additional support and attention, as the following points attest:

  • Over 50% of the current Australian university population is first in the family to come to university (Spiegler & Bednarek, 2013)
  • Over a quarter of first-in-family respondents in AUSSE (2011) indicated departure intentions in the first year of university and this figure increase to 34% for later year students (Coates & Ransom, 2011)
  • Students with a parent or family member who has attended university are statistically more likely to successfully complete higher education studies (McMillan, 2005)
  • Students in OECD member countries who are from a more educated family are ‘almost twice (1.9)’ as likely to attend university (p.3) than peers. (OECD, 2013).

My mother now uses me as an example for my little brother and so it’s that extra tool in the house to get him to do something and even with my older brother – because we’ve seen the positive impact it’s had on my life and they know the ins and outs – I tell them everything so they can see that it’s not the scary, unknown thing anymore, it’s known and it’s not scary, it’s wonderful. It’s really changed the dynamics of the household.”
Nigel, 26, 1st year Education

However, there are equally more fundamental and perhaps less discussed reasons why first-in-family learners are so important to university participation and retention. Above all, these learners are possible cultural change agents within the family and the community. Repeatedly in our research (O’Shea, 2014; 2015; O’Shea, May, Stone & Delahunty, 2015), the strong intergenerational impacts that this university attendance resulted in for those closest to the learners were demonstrated. In interviews and focus groups, learners have described how they brought the university into the home place, initiating new conversations of learning and opening up the educational futures of children, siblings, parents and extended family/community members.

One student [1] who agreed to be interviewed as part of a focus group most poignantly described these intergenerational ripples of learning:

“Well I’m an uncle of 11 nieces and nephews there and my two eldest nieces … one’s 11 and 10 …and they’re arguing now over like ‘I’m gonna study nursing’ ‘Nah, I’m doing that’ [all laugh] … or ‘where you going to go to study?’ ‘oh I’m going to XXXX like uncle’ ‘Nah I wanna do that – you go to Sydney’ – they’ll argue and it kinda brings a tear to my eye when I see that – it’s kinda funny but it’s good.”

– Evan, First in Community, FG

This fellowship recognises the very important role of family and community in both first-in-family students’ educational motivations and also, their engagement and participation in this environment (O’Shea, 2014, 2015).

Building upon the OLT funded Breaking the Barriers project (O’Shea, May & Stone, 2014), which incorporates 1) a comprehensive data set and 2) a empirically-based website resource, the fellowship is working closely with outreach programs in order to systematically embed strategies that will assist learners (and their families) in the transition to university and also retention in this environment.

What is the fellowship doing?
The fellowship is grounded upon a strong empirical basis comprising of 101 student interviews across three institutions (some of which included family members), 40 family member surveys and a further 173 student surveys. The data collected was voluminous, forming the basis for publications (Stone, O’Shea, May, Delahunty & Parkington, 2016; O’Shea, Stone, May & Delahunty, under review) and also contributing to a forthcoming book publication (O’Shea, May, Stone & Delahunty, in-press).

In addition to this material, the fellowship is currently collecting further data from first-in-family students, parents and also key stakeholders in the field. The data will provide the basis for further analysis about the ways in which family and university interact as well as perceptions held by family members about the university environment. Other activities include adding resources to the first in family website, establishing a blog as a means to both generate conversations about this topic and also, collaboratively develop the National Principles for Engaging with the Family and Community of First-in-Family Students.

How can you get involved?
Key to this fellowship is stakeholder involvement in both the resources developed and also, the National Principles. To forge these strong stakeholder connections, I have been conducting a number of workshops with institutions across Australia [2]. Feedback from these sessions has been overwhelmingly positive and each workshop attracts a diversity of participants: the majority (50%) identify as professional staff members, with 15% working in student support services. Academic staff and equity practitioners represented 11 and 12% respectively. The remainder include policy makers, library staff, students and career counsellors.

“The workshop activity was an ‘eye opener and reminder of FiF cohort – not supported as a cohort but naturally falls across all our other targets i.e. low SES, ATSI'”
Survey Respondent #10

Out of the 90 participants that agreed to participate in the survey:

  • 90% rated the workshop highly – as excellent or very good (with 10% selecting fairly–mildly good and 4% leaving blank)
  • All respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the workshop will be “useful in their work” and 94% indicated that they would use the resources from the workshop in their work or research, and that their knowledge in this area had increased.

The usefulness of the workshop activity was considered outstanding to above average by 92% because of the “solid, meaningful, helpful” research (#58), “networking opportunities” (#3) “reconnecting with colleagues” (#5), relevance to “my work with students” (#38, #69), a better understanding of the FiF cohort which is “huge … but not always specifically considered” (#22) or “is outside my experience” (#33), as well as for “Great structure, lots of information to think about” (#90).

“… using story/narrative to extract great data and insights Love the concept of drilling down to SUCCESSES and ENABLERS! – more useful!!!”
Survey Respondent #11

Additionally, I have been working closely with a small number of case study sites to explore ways to both connect with first-in-family students and approaches that can be implemented to forge strong connections with the family and community members. These activities are designed to encourage groups to think through how they might implement findings and outcomes practically.

“The research was solid, meaningful, helpful. Concrete strategies; deep understanding of diverse experiences FY students bring to uni. Success is deeply personal so hearing stories from students shows how we need services to be agile”
– Survey Respondent #89

If you are interested in hearing more about this project, then please email or You are also invited to attend the upcoming First-in-Family workshop that will be held at the NCSEHE on Monday 27 June 2016.

[1] During focus groups, all participants were given the option of retaining their name and identity or adopting a pseudonym for confidentiality. All participants preferred to remain anonymous but we respectfully acknowledge that the ownership of all stories remains with the narrators.

[2] I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Dr Janine Delahunty in both the project management of this Fellowship and also the data collection.

Coates, H., & Ransom, L. (June, 2011) ‘Dropout DNA, and the genetics of effective support’. AUSSE Research Briefings, Volume 11, (1-16). Retrieved on 2 July 2012 from

McMillan, J. (2005). Course change and attrition from higher education. LSAY Research Report No.39. Melbourne: ACER.

OECD. (2013). How are university students changing? Education Indicators in Focus – 2013/06 (September) Vol. 15, pp. 1-4.

O’ Shea, S. (2014). Filling up silences –first in family students, capital and university talk in the home. International Journal of Lifelong Education. 34:2, 139-155.

O’Shea, S., (2015) “I generally say I am a Mum first… but I’m studying at uni”: The narratives of first in family, female caregivers moving into an Australian university. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. Vol 8(4), pp 243-257.

O’Shea, S., May, J., Stone, C., & Delahunty, J. (2015). Breaking the Barriers: supporting and engaging first-in-family university learners and their families. Final Report. Retrieved from

O’Shea, S., May, J., Stone, C., & Delahunty, J. (contract signed 2015).  First-in-Family Students, University Experience and Family Life: Motivations, Transitions and Participation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

O’Shea, S., Stone, C., May, J., & Delahunty, J. (under review). Discourses of betterment and opportunity: Exploring the privileging of university attendance for first-in-family learners.

Spiegler, T., & Bednarek, A. (2013). First-generation students: what we ask, what we know and what it means: an international review of the state of research. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 23(4), 318-337.

Stone, C., O’Shea, S., May, J., Delahunty, J & Partington, Z. (in-press, July 2016). Opportunity through online learning: experiences of first-in-family students in online open-entry higher education. Australian Journal of Adult Learning.