Tracking how first-gen college students bridge changing identities

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Sanchez Hernandez, Campos earn UCI Spirit Award to study emotional consequences of social mobility

For many first-generation college students, the transition to a university environment comes with a host of new learning experiences inside and outside the classroom. Among them, says UCI Chicano/Latino studies professor and chair Belinda Campos, are the often overlooked yet critical shifts in behaviors and emotions that come with navigating new social and cultural norms.

“Transitioning from a working-class home environment to a middle-class university environment can make salient the social and cultural discrepancies that exist between two social worlds,” says Campos. “For first-generation college students, entering university environments entails entering a world of new cultural norms around emotional experiences.”

With funding from the UCI Office of Inclusive Excellence Spirit Award, Campos and Hugo Sanchez Hernandez, a UCI psychological science doctoral candidate, are studying how first-gen college students navigate their university experience and whether that differs from continuing generation college students. 

“One university norm that is likely to be unfamiliar among first-gen students coming from lower socioeconomic status working-class contexts is openly sharing one’s academic achievements with others, an act that aligns with university values around individuality, independence, and self-expression," says Sanchez Hernandez. “While proud of their achievements, first-gen students have reported difficulty sharing these accolades across home and university environments due to concerns that they may come across negatively – either as too prideful or drawing unwanted attention to the socioeconomic differences that exist between their home and university environments.”

Through one-on-one interviews with study participants, Sanchez Hernandez and Campos have been working to understand the prevalence of these emotions and behaviors among first-gen students and how these experiences are managed across social hierarchies.

“Academic achievement is studied predominantly through a positive lens, as something to celebrate,” says Campos. “Our work will provide a more nuanced perspective as it pertains to social mobility while also helping us better understand how to assist first-gen college students as they learn to bridge their social worlds.”

The UCI Office of Inclusive Excellence Spirit Awards support faculty activities which promote equity, diversity, and inclusion on campus among faculty, students, and staff, as well as the community served by UCI.