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You are reading: Going-it alone: the university progression of women nursing students who are the first person in their intimate relationship to go to university

Lesley Andrew, Leesa Costello, Ken Robinson and Julie Dare, Edith Cowan University.

Originally published in Higher Education Research & Development

11 Jan 2021


This article argues for an expansion of the idea of the first-in-family student to include the student whose spouse or partner has not been to university. Between 2015 and 2016, a qualitative longitudinal study, guided by Gadamer’s hermeneutic philosophy, was undertaken. Twenty-nine undergraduate women nursing students who began university in a heterosexual intimate relationship participated. All 29 were interviewed in their fourth semester of their degree (or part-time equivalent), and 23 of these 29 completed a second interview in their last semester. Thematic analysis of the resultant 52 interviews revealed the participants who were the first person in their intimate relationship to go to university faced a series of difficulties associated with this relationship. The partners of these women were less willing to share in the university journey and offered little emotional support. Participants experienced personal growth and widened worldviews during their degree, and developed a more liberal stance on gender roles within the relationship. The women’s changing perspectives and their partners’ ongoing lack of emotional, and also practical support, tested the dynamics of the intimate relationship. The situations of tension and conflict that ensued challenged the women’s progression and with this, the stability and functioning of the relationship itself. Higher education initiatives are proposed to support this vulnerable student group. This includes partner outreach activities, enhanced pastoral support systems, and a flexible and responsive approach from the university to women who experience relationship difficulties during their degree. Further research is required to build a body of evidence around the first-in-relationship student experience.

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