Family Roles and Independence of First-Generation College Students

First-generation college students, particularly those from working-class backgrounds, often encounter cultural mismatches between their interdependent backgrounds and middle-class university contexts that promote independent norms (Stephens et al., 2012). Past work has documented this mismatch with various methodologies (e.g., self-report, lab experiments, longitudinal designs), but behavioral explorations have been minimal.

In this line of work, we explore the everyday family roles of first-generation college students, and how these behaviors match or mismatch the behavioral expectations of students in university settings. Specifically, we examine the ways in which students enact independence—both hard (i.e., survival-focused) and soft (i.e., emotion-focused) independence (Kusserrow, 2012)—and how these forms of independence relate to larger norms of contributing to and staying connected with family.

In one study, we interviewed 34 first-generation college students about their everyday family roles and ways of enacting independence. Grounded theory analysis revealed six family role themes, such as heavy sibling caretaking and providing physical care, financial support, and English translation to parents. First-generation college students also shared enacting four forms of soft independence (e.g., freedom, self-expression) and five forms of hard independence (e.g., self-reliance, resilience).

Our methodological approach and findings contribute novel understandings of the lived experiences of first-generation college students and provides insights on what behaviors universities should recognize as valuable strengths when serving first-generation college students.