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You are reading: Exploring the Experience of Being First in Family at University

Written by Associate Professor Sharron King (University of South Australia), Dr Ann Luzeckyj (Flinders University), Associate Professor Ben McCann (University of Adelaide) and Ms Charmaine Graham (University of South Australia)


This collaborative research project was conducted by academics across the three major universities in South Australia, i.e. University of South Australia, Flinders University and the University of Adelaide. The project was funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) at Curtin University and explores the experiences of first in family students in higher education.

There are a number of definitions and terminologies used within the research literature to refer to students who are the first member of their family to attend university. In the US, the term ‘first generation’ student is generally used to define the cohort whose parents have either not attended university or have not earned a degree (Engle, 2007; Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005). In the UK and Australian literature the term ‘first in family’ is more commonly used (Crozier & Reay, 2008). For the purposes of this project we have chosen to use the following definition to categorise first in family students: Students who are the first member of their immediate family, including siblings, to attend university.

First in family (FiF) is an under-recognised cohort who are not included as part of any official equity groupings. FiF students may encompass low SES, mature age, regional and remote, and Indigenous students. Research indicates that these cohorts are highly capable when given opportunities to participate and support to succeed (Devlin, Kift, Nelson, Smith & McKay 2012). However, our previous research showed that FiF students experience educational disadvantage because their cultural and social capital does not readily align with that of the university (Luzeckyj, King, Scutter & Brinkworth, 2011). Building on this work, this project used a narrative inquiry approach to enrich our understanding of the FiF student experience, thereby providing FiF students with advice on how to navigate university life successfully and recommendations to university staff and policymakers on how to improve FiF outcomes.

Through the project, the key areas of focus were:

  • The factors that influence FiF students’ decisions to enrol, attend and continue at university, including their realisation of initial aspirations and ambitions.
  • How FiF students experienced university, including the incumbent costs and related constraints of attending university, such as living costs, transport, housing, sacrifices made.
  • The impact studying at university had on FiF students’ physical, social and mental health and wellbeing.
  • How FiF students managed points of transition; e.g. how they managed their first few weeks at university or the transition to final years of study, including how they dealt with differences between their expectations and experiences, what support and help seeking strategies they implemented.
  • In what ways their self-image or identity was transformed as a result of their attendance at university, including how these transformative experiences impacted upon their day-to-day lives as well as their impact on relationships with significant others (e.g. partners, children, parents, close friends).
  • How universities supported or hindered their experiences and/or progress in terms of provision of particular kinds of learning spaces and places and access to teaching and support staff.

And finally, as these FiF students transitioned out of university, what they considered were the benefits of their university experiences and qualifications for themselves as individuals, for the university and society more broadly.

Our research adopted a mixed methods approach and included: a literature review and the development of an Annotated Bibliography of 155 Australian and International publications on first in family students’ experiences in higher education; an examination of survey data from over 5,300 first in family students’ expectations and experiences of university study, and in-depth interviews with 18 first in family students who had successfully navigated at least three years of university study.

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This report is one of a series of 12 funded by the NCSEHE’s 2014 Student Equity in Higher Education Research Grants Program.

King, S., Luzeckyj, A., McCann, B. and Graham, C. (2015). Exploring the Experience of Being First in Family at University: A 2014 Student Equity in Higher Education Research Grants Project. National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Perth: Curtin University.