Understanding different experiences
We think the student experience is nuanced and differs greatly across the first generation and lower income (FGLI) student population. Focus groups allow us to hear from a wide range of students in their own words. While each focus group is designed around a set of structured questions, the focus group participants ultimately steer the conversation to what matters to them.
We are capturing broad themes and powerful stories within our focus groups. We want to be able to explain to the larger university "where it hurts" as a first generation/low income student at UVA. We will draw on the broad themes uncovered in the focus group to direct our energy as we explore possible policy and institutional changes. We will return to powerful stories as we work to tell the broader story defining problems for policy makers at UVA.
Participant Focus Groups: All students self-identified as lower income and/or first generation
Interdependence: For many participants, it was difficult to separate college life from home life. They felt like they had to always consider their family's needs.
Recognition of difference: Early experiences and interactions served to underscore class and cultural differences and disparities in ways that often left participants feeling out of place or provoked re-evaluation of their own backgrounds.
Social exclusion: Participants struggled with financial constraints that restricted their ability to engage in common social events such as going to restaurants or participate in club activities.
Work trade-off: Some participants identified a trade-off between working to support themselves and the time and resources to be social with friends.
Segregation: The selection into costly activities by students with wealth combined with the need to work or financial restrictions on going out socially for FGLI students contributes to self-segregate by income as well as race and ethnicity.
Advising: We found a general dissatisfaction with academic advising/advisors.
Academic resources: Participants often found resources - office hours, peer advising, support services - to be intimidating and not always helpful.
Preparedness: Many participants felt unprepared for UVA, though reasons varied.
Lack of clarity: Without a clear understanding of the expectations and difficulty of college coursework, some participants overloaded in credits their first semesters and found they needed to drop courses or have their grades suffer.
Mentorship: Many students wished for financial mentors and a list of faculty that were willing to be involved with FGLI students.
Financial concerns: Participants constantly are worried about their financials.
Jobs: Most participants held at least one job. The money earned at these jobs was often sent home to their families to help relieve financial strains or used for necessities such as food and rent.
Federal work study: Many participants found it difficult to find the work-study jobs for which they are eligible.
Housing: Finding housing can be very difficult as most places fill before the end of the fall semester. This puts pressure on students to decide housing quickly and commit funds as soon as possible.
Anxiety: Participants expressed clear anxiety about life beyond college in regards to internships and job security. The lack of a safety net increases the pressure to succeed right away. While they expect UVA's reputation to help in the job search, they worry that they do not have the the right connections or same resources as peers.
Networks: Coming in as an FGLI student, many participants mentioned a struggle with networking and building connections with others who can help with finding opportunities and positions.
Internships: Some participants felt disadvantaged compared to wealthier peers with regards to internships, as they cannot afford to work at an unpaid internship or have responsibilities to fulfill at home that prevented taking a summer internship.
Community & Family
Community first: As first-generation college students, many participants came from communities where they served as not only the first in their families to go to college, but also the first to do so within their communities.
Strained relationships: Relationships with community and family back home can become strained for FGLI students. There is increased tension between parents and students, and some old friends are harder to connect with.
Giving back: Participants regularly expressed a desire to give back to their communities back home, supporting their families or working to improve the conditions of within these communities.
FGLI Identity: Many participants realized and aligned with the FGLI identity after spending some time at the University. Participants often did not consider themselves to be FGLI before matriculating to the University because their communities at home, including friends, family, and high school peers, were similar. UVA brought this identity to the forefront.
FG and/or LI: For some, their status as low-income is more threatening or isolating than their status as first-generation. Lack of knowledge about higher education processes and structures is easier to resolve than lack of opportunities and experiences based on class.
Intersectionality: Participants recognized a common FGLI identity but experience the University in many different ways. How students perceive the diversity at the University is greatly influenced by the diversity experienced back at home. As one participant summed up a key challenge: "No one talks about being low-income [because] most people at UVA are rich. I came into UVA thinking the black community was also like me, but it wasn’t. It’s hard to bridge that gap in wealth at UVA."
Imposter syndrome: Many participants feel they do not belong at UVA despite their achievements. They perceive peers as more comfortable and confident, which can be further isolating.