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First-in-family scholars bust generational barriers –

Qaphelani Ngulube, a first-generation student from Zimbabwe, faces unique challenges as a graduate student.Credit: Donald Tapfuma

“As a first-generation…….

Qaphelani Ngulube, a first-generation student from Zimbabwe, faces unique challenges as a graduate student.Credit: Donald Tapfuma

“As a first-generation student, the challenges start before grad school,” says Jisub Hwang, a PhD candidate at the Korea Polar Research Institute in Incheon, South Korea. Hwang is the first person in his family to attend university. “It’s tough to help my family understand the long journey of getting a PhD. They want me to earn money at a company.”

Hwang says South Korean undergraduates typically secure industry jobs after earning their degrees, but he realized this path wasn’t for him, given his passion for polar research. In a conversation with his parents about his career plans, Hwang explained why going to graduate school makes him happy and is necessary to achieve his long-term career goal of becoming an independent researcher. “The more they understand about graduate-school life, the more they support me and respect my decision,” he says.

Having difficult conversations with family members is just one of many challenges first-generation graduate students can face. For example, parents are often proud of their children’s undergraduate achievements, but they might worry about the financial instability that comes with more years of study. Students who are the first in their families to attend university might struggle with imposter syndrome and feel guilty for leaving their families or not financially contributing enough to them. Although many first-generation students are interested in pursuing graduate degrees, they might not have the financial resources or guidance to navigate applying to graduate school and to thrive in the academic environment1.

Despite the challenges, first-generation students make up a large portion of undergraduate and graduate students. In 2016, 56% of undergraduate students at US institutions were first-generation, and approximately 30% of US PhD recipients are first-generation2. In England, two-thirds of graduates are the first in their families to attend univerrsity3.

“That’s a tremendous amount of students,” says Sarah Whitley, assistant vice-president of the Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative based in Washington DC that provides information about advancing the success of first-generation students and practices for doing so. “But institutions are such complex bureaucratic and jargon-filled entities that we are making it difficult for first-generation students to access the support and resources imperative to their success.”

Opening doors

First-generation students, who are more likely to come from lower income families and to belong to under-represented groups in science2, often lack the financial resources, research opportunities and mentorship needed to make graduate school a viable option. “If you’re the first in your family, you may not …….


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