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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2019

Eye on Psi Chi

Summer 2019 | Volume 23 | Issue 4


Crossing Class Cultures: Understanding First-Generation College Students' Transitions

Sarah D. Herrmann, PhD,
Weber State University (UT)

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Michelle Obama, a first-generation college (FGC) student, described her first days at college this way (The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 2014):

You’re in a whole new world… When I first arrived at school as a first-generation college student, I didn’t know anyone on campus except my brother. I didn’t know how to pick the right classes or find the right buildings. I didn’t even bring the right size sheets for my dorm room bed. I didn’t realize those beds were so long. So, I was a little overwhelmed and a little isolated. (para 24)

Her experience is not unique. Although FGC students represent a third of incoming college students today, they have poorer adjustment, performance, and persistence compared to their continuing- generation college (CGC) counterparts (NCES, 2014). FGC students are defined as those for whom neither parent has attained a four-year college degree (U.S. Department of Education, 2011). Part of the discrepancy in performance between FGC and CGC students is explained by poorer academic preparation before college: FGC students have lower high school GPAs, are less likely to have taken advanced placement courses, have lower scores on standardized tests, and are more likely to come from high schools that lack college preparation (Engle & Tinto, 2007; Warburton, Bugarin, & Nunez, 2001). However, even after controlling for students’ demographic backgrounds, enrollment characteristics, and past academic performance, FGC students are still at higher risk of failure and withdrawal from college (Tinto, 1993). Thus, the social class achievement gap is as much due to differences during college as differences before college (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).

Cultural Mismatch

One such difference is that, unlike CGC students, FGC students must navigate an unfamiliar cultural context. American universities tend to embody middle- and upper-class norms of independence (Fryberg & Markus, 2007; Stephens, Fryberg, Markus, Johnson, & Covarrubias, 2012). This assumption guides beliefs about how students should learn, interact with one another, and perform. Stephens and colleagues (2012) found that university administrators were more likely to endorse independent norms (e.g., challenging norms, working independently) as ways that students would be successful at their schools. Thus, a good student in the college context is willing to approach the teacher, ask questions, and even interrupt to make a point (Stephens, Markus, & Phillips, 2014).

FGC students, conversely, tend to come from working-class backgrounds characterized by interdependence, where the “good” and “healthy” person is connected to others. When students from one context enter a context that has different understandings about the appropriate way to behave, it may result in a cultural mismatch (Markus & Conner, 2013). Thus, FGC students may experience a cultural mismatch with the university context, where they are uncertain about the proper way to act, and may begin questioning whether they can be successful there (Johnson, Richeson, & Finkel, 2011). This cultural mismatch may explain, in part, why FGC students have adjustment problems, poorer academic performance, and lower retention rates in higher educational settings.

Social Class Bicultural Identity Integration

FGC students come from a culture whose values, norms, and behaviors differ from those that are predominant in the college context. Biculturalism is defined as having experienced or internalized two or more cultures (Benet-Martínez, Leu, Lee, & Morris, 2002; Nguyen & Benet-Martínez, 2007). Although research on biculturalism has previously focused on immigrants, international students, and people of mixed ethnicity, people from working-class backgrounds who inhabit middle-class contexts such as FGC students might also be thought of as bicultural.

The social class achievement gap is a persistent issue.

Previous research on ethnic biculturals and immigrants, people who have experienced or internalized more than one culture, suggests that ease of integrating different cultural identities is related to a host of positive outcomes. If FGC students can in fact be considered bicultural, then those with high social class bicultural identity integration (SESBII)— who perceive their home (i.e., working- class) and school (i.e., middle-class) identities as harmonious—should experience improved outcomes relative to those who perceive their identities to be in conflict.

Indeed, recent research demonstrates that FGC students with integrated social class identities had higher life satisfaction, physical and mental health, and lower depression, stress, and acculturative stress, relative to FGC students who were low in SES-BII, who experienced greater difficulty managing their cultural identities (Herrmann & Varnum, 2018). Integrated social class identities were also linked to better academic performance and persistence. Additionally, the effects of integration on health and well-being were mediated by acculturative stress, such that participants high in social class bicultural identity integration had lower acculturative stress, thereby improving health and well-being.

How Psychological Interventions Can Increase Performance and Persistence

By gaining a better understanding of the psychological variables that contribute to FGC students’ performance and persistence, we can enact effective, inexpensive, scalable interventions to reduce the social class achievement gap. A variety of studies demonstrate that one way to reduce the acculturative challenge is for relevant role models (i.e., older students or faculty members) to normalize challenges in the transition to college for FGC students and to provide culturally based advice. One study by Stephens and colleagues (2014) tested whether exposure to a panel of senior students who acknowledged college generation status and stressed strategies specific to students’ cultural backgrounds would improve student performance (Stephens, Hamedani, & Destin, 2014).

Namely, incoming FGC and CGC students attended a panel session that either did or did not acknowledge panelists’ college generation status. Both the treatment (i.e., difference education) and control panels offered students valuable advice on strategies to succeed in college (e.g., attending office hours), but panelists in the control condition did not acknowledge college generation status. At the end of students’ first year, there was no difference in GPA for the CGC students by panel; however, among the FGC students, those who had seen senior students out themselves as FGC students and offer culturally matched advice had significantly higher GPAs than those in the control condition, who were less likely to take advantage of resources.

FGC Faculty

Another ongoing study examines whether exposure to FGC faculty can increase students’ engagement and performance. There has recently been a push to increase visibility of FGC faculty members; for example, many FGC faculty in the University of California system wear T-shirts and buttons identifying their college generation status for the first week of school and are featured on websites highlighting their experiences and offering advice. This is important because college generation status is a concealable identity, meaning that it is not apparent unless people “out” themselves.

My colleagues Giselle Laiduc, Rebecca Covarrubias, and I wanted to know whether brief exposure to a webpage detailing FGC faculty stories and advice would increase institutional commitment and performance on an anagram task for FGC students (Herrmann, Laiduc, & Covarrubias, in prep). We created mock websites featuring brief biographies from five faculty members. In our control condition, faculty members discussed their academic histories and offered advice (e.g., take advantage of tutoring services), without mentioning college generation status. In the intervention condition, faculty mentioned that they were FGC students, briefly discussed how it impacted their experiences, and provided culturally relevant advice (e.g., sharing the journey with your family and community). Then, we had students complete an anagram task and rate their institutional commitment—how likely they are to return to the university and graduate. Although CGC students had similar anagram performance and institutional commitment regardless of condition, FGC students exposed to first-generation faculty had significantly higher task performance and institutional commitment than those in the control condition.

The social class achievement gap is a persistent issue. Traditional interventions to improve FGC students’ performance and persistence by increasing their academic and financial support have been costly, time consuming, and limited in reach. However, we can utilize research on FGC students’ experiences in the college contexts in order to craft brief psychological interventions that have the power to reach many more students. As illustrated in the studies discussed above, these interventions can be as simple as having first-generation faculty “out” themselves, or providing senior student role models through orientation programs or FGC student clubs (e.g., I’m First!, 1vyG).

The Role of Psi Chi

There are a variety of ways that Psi Chi chapters can assist in the effort to improve FGC students’ experiences, performance, and persistence in college. Below are some suggestions that can help FGC students, but would also be likely to increase membership and involvement among underrepresented students from a variety of backgrounds.

  • Be proactive about membership. One of the main challenges facing FGC students is lack of “cultural capital,” or insider knowledge about how the university works, including how to become involved in clubs or honor societies like Psi Chi. Rather than waiting for students to come to them, Psi Chi advisors and chapters can actively seek out and invite qualified students. Work with your department or college advisors to assess which students satisfy the requirements for membership and invite them to join.
  • Choose your meeting times wisely. Psi Chi chapters should be sensitive to the constraints of their FGC members. FGC students are more likely than their CGC counterparts to work part- or full-time jobs while attending college, live off-campus, and have family responsibilities to attend to. Thus, chapters should be sensitive to when they hold their meetings, and can use tools like Doodle or When2Meet to find a time that works best for the majority of members. Even if students can’t make regular chapter meetings, try to plan service events, panel discussions, research groups, and socials at a variety of times (e.g., morning coffee and bagels, movie night Fridays).
  • Publicize scholarship and funding opportunities. Psi Chi offers a wealth of scholarships and grants to students, but FGC students may be less likely to seek these out or apply for them. Invite qualified students to apply, hold a special workshop detailing different awards and grants, and discuss what characterizes successful grant applications. Then, share the wealth. Students who receive travel funding, for example, can share hotel rooms with other students, whose airfare and registration fees can be supported with money raised from chapter fund-raising efforts.
  • Make graduate school a reality. Many students, especially FGCs, don’t know that PhD programs frequently offer tuition waivers and stipends to graduate students. This simple fact can take a seemingly impossible path (i.e., four to seven more years of education) and make it a reality. Once students are convinced that graduate school may be accessible to “people like them,” chapters can demystify the application process by holding workshops on how to apply to graduate school or panel discussions from graduate students, alumni, or faculty on their experiences in graduate school.

Benet-Martínez, V., Leu, J., Lee, F., & Morris, M. W. (2002). Negotiating biculturalism: Cultural frame-switching in biculturals with ‘oppositional’ vs. ‘compatible’ cultural identities. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 33, 492–516.

Engle, J., & Tinto, V. (2008). Moving beyond access: College success for low-income, first generation students. Washington, DC: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

Fryberg, S. A., & Markus, H. R. (2007). Cultural models of education in American Indian, Asian American, and European American contexts. Social Psychology of Education, 10, 213–246.

Herrmann, S. D., Laiduc, G. A., & Covarrubias, R. (in prep). A brief role model intervention improves first-generation college student commitment and performance.

Herrmann, S. D., & Varnum, M. E. W. (2018). Integrated social class identities are linked to academic success, well-being, and workplace satisfaction. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 49, 635–663.

Johnson, S. E., Richeson, J. A., & Finkel, E. J. (2011). Middle-class and marginal? The influence of socioeconomic status on the self-regulatory resources of students at an elite university. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 838–852.

Markus, H. R., & Conner, A. (2013). Clash! 8 cultural conflicts that make us who we are. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press.

Nguyen, A. M. D., & Benet-Martínez, V. (2013). Biculturalism and adjustment: A meta-analysis. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 44, 122–159.

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How college affects students: Findings and insights from twenty years of research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Stephens, N. M., Fryberg, S. A., Markus, H. R., Johnson, C. S., & Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen disadvantage: How American universities’ focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 1178–1197.

Stephens, N. M., Hamedani, M. H., & Destin, M. (2014). Closing the social-class achievement gap: A difference-education intervention improves first-generation students' academic performance and all students' college transition. Psychological Science, 25, 943–953.

Stephens, N. M., Markus, H. R., & Phillips, L. T. (2014). Social class culture cycles: How three gateway contexts shape selves and fuel inequality. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 611–634.

The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. (2014, January 16). Remarks by the President and First Lady at College Opportunity Summit. The White House [Press release]. Retrieved from

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

U.S. Department of Education. (2011). 20 USC CHAPTER 28, SUBCHAPTER IV, Part A: federal early outreach and student services programs. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education. (2014, October). National Center for Education Statistics [NCES]. Web table: Profile of Undergraduate Students 2011–2012 Retrieved from

Warburton, E., Bugarin, R., & Nunez, A. (2001). Bridging the gap: Academic preparation and postsecondary success of first-generation students (NCES 2001–153). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Government Printing Office.

Sarah D. Herrmann, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. She graduated in 2010 with a BA in psychology from the University of Arizona and received a doctorate in social psychology at Arizona State University in May 2017. Sarah's program of research explores the impact of underrepresented identities (e.g., social class, ethnicity, gender) on experiences and performance in academic contexts. She has been a member of Psi Chi since 2009 and currently serves as a faculty advisor for Psi Chi at Weber State University.

Copyright 2019 (Vol. 23, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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