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Sarah

Sarah O'Shea

Year of Award: 2017 Award State: New South Wales Education > Tertiary And Adult
To explore best practice in retaining students who are first-in-family to attend university - UK, Canada, USA

This fellowship explored best practice in supporting and engaging students who are the first in their families to come to university. The terms first in family or first generation are used in this report interchangeably to identify students who are the first in their immediate family to participate in university, this includes parents, siblings, partners and children.

This is a growing student population globally and one that is highly intersected by equity categories, such intersectionality impacting on student retention and completion. By investigating how institutions across the UK, Canada and the US consider these learners, the fellowship foregrounds innovative approaches and thinking in this regard.

The fellowship enabled me to visit university sites across each of these locations and to both witness practical initiatives targeted at supporting this first in family (FiF) cohort and also, to have discussions with leading researchers and academics in the topic. The fellowship had a dual-fold focus seeking to explore innovative theoretical applications as well as investigate how various interventions are implemented. Despite researching and working in this field for over a decade, this fellowship greatly increased my understanding of the field in two ways - providing me with new knowledge and importantly, confirming existing perspectives on what I thought would work. Having the opportunity to engage in productive conversations with a wide range of stakeholders allowed me to reflect deeply on what could work in the Australian context as well as consider how to implement these changes sector wide. I want to acknowledge all the people who took the time to meet with me, each had a hectic schedule and gave generously regardless.

Overwhelmingly, what struck me is how the FiF student cohort is very visible across the institutional discourses in each of these countries. This is a success discourse which characterises entry into higher education in terms of celebration and positive outcomes. This is key to ensuring that the FiF population feels welcomed rather than being regarded as deficit or lacking essential skills or knowledges. Repeatedly this ‘celebratory discourse’ is displayed in institutional charters, marketing campaigns and also, targeted support initiatives. 

The approach is largely global in focus, often foregrounding the FiF status of staff and including very visible markers of belonging (i.e. National FiF Celebration Day; FiF badges and stickers; videos of successful FiF alumni etc). Many of the institutions productively leverage their alumni to both support programs and also, highlight future success.

Dissemination of these and other key learnings will occur through a diversity of avenues. This report will be distributed to thought leaders across the HE sector, particularly those who lead the academic and student experience areas. Additionally, social media and my existing online presence will be used to ‘drip-feed’ findings; the blogs that I wrote whilst travelling will be placed in an online digest and distributed to an existing e-list of equity stakeholders. Finally, I will present on these findings at leading conferences with one invited workshop already confirmed at the National Equity Practitioners Higher Education Australia Conference in 2019.

Report: Higher education access and participation, First in Family students, First Generation students, student success, higher education equity, social inclusion, equality, educational equity, university student retention

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