Nurturing First Generation Students

New York Tech prides itself on giving all qualified students access to opportunity, and the diversity of our campus community bears that out. This teaching note focuses in on one group of our students, those who identify as first generation.

Twenty-four percent of New York Tech students identify as first-generation, meaning that they are either the first of a generation to become a citizen in a new country, the first of a generation to be born in a country of parents who had immigrated, or the first of a generation to graduate from a university.

Morales (2012) conducted a qualitative analysis of students’ experiences in liberal arts courses. Participants were 20 first-generation students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. Morales identified three key themes that we can see in many introductory courses and throughout the experience of higher education:

  • Legitimizing the private by making it public: Especially in literature courses, but certainly with other learning experiences as well, students can be exposed to perspectives of others that validate their own experiences. Marginalized students, in particular, may come to realize that they are not alone in feeling embarrassed or confused as they encounter common challenges in adjusting to campus life and new disciplines.
  • Contributing academic accuracy to pre-existing knowledge: Students develop knowledge and understanding of their histories and their worlds. Learning to think in the method of their discipline (e.g., as a historian or scientist) empowers students who can now feel freed from erroneous beliefs and belief systems around contexts and events important to them. Profound intellectual excitement accompanies the emotional and cognitive liberation of seeing the world through new eyes.
  • Validating dissent: Students in our introductory, as well as advanced, courses have the opportunity to develop ideological autonomy. Many adolescents learn simply that knowledge is dispensed by authority figures, but with higher education can come to realize they can question this knowledge, and even participate in creating new knowledge. For some, this may be the first time they’ve been asked or allowed to question prior norms, thoughts, and values.

Instructors can nurture development of these realizations by pointing out connections between course material and students’ own experiences, and by asking students to do so. It also helps to directly address common myths and misconceptions in your field.


  • Morales, E. E. (2012). Learning as liberation: How liberal arts education transforms first-generation low socio-economic college students. Journal of College Student Retention, 13(4), 499-518.

Karen Huxtable-Jester, Ph.D.
Associate Director, Center for Teaching and Learning
University of Texas at Dallas