A qualitative thematic analysis of first-generation college students’ help-seeking attitudes, decisions, and behaviors

Reference: Hagler, M., Johnson, R., Boags, J., & Snipe, L. (2023). A qualitative thematic analysis of first-generation college students’ help-seeking attitudes, decisions, and behaviors. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice. https://doi.org/10.1177/15210251231198006 

Summarized By: Ariel Ervin

About this Study 

Evidence shows that college degrees are longitudinally associated with higher earnings, greater civic engagement, and better health, positioning them as potential catalysts for social mobility for first-generation college students. However, although there has been an upward trend in first-gen. students enrollment in recent decades, they’re still less likely to graduate than their continuing-generation peers, even after adjusting for income disparities. Even first-gen students graduate, they are more likely to be in debt, have a lower median income, and face more difficulties in getting a job that requires a college degree. The root causes of these disparities are multifaceted and complex (one of the most cited factors being the lack of cultural and social capital). This gap often widens because first-gen students are less likely to seek help, take advantage of campus resources, and nurture relationships with college faculty and staff. There is a lack of evidence that indicates how first-gen students navigate the complexities of seeking support during their first year, where the risk of dropping out is the highest. This qualitative study explores the help-seeking attitudes, decision-making processes, and behaviors of first-gen. students at a 4-year, regional, public university.

Key Findings

  • There’s No Such Thing as Free Help: Although college services are freely available, many students pinpoint hidden costs of seeking help. Because many of them work, have long commutes, and have family responsibilities on top of their schooling, they prioritize what’s the most important and perceive seeking help as a luxury. Many first-gen students also feel embarrassed or ashamed about asking for help and feel like they are burdening others for doing so. 
  • Preference for Self-Reliance: Some first-gen students preferred handling things on their own
  • “Physical Solutions” for “Physical Problems”: First-gen students were selective in their decision-making about if, when, and whom they should seek help from. Many sought help when they could identify someone with the resources, knowledge, and power to resolve an issue. Others waited until their needs became apparent before reaching out for assistance.  
  • Opening the Door (Removing Barriers to Entry): First-gen students were more receptive to seeking help when they could pinpoint a designated person or space to assist them. Knowing that they have someone whose primary duty is to help alleviates the sense of shame or embarrassment in seeking help. Similarly, having a designated person or space removes the stress of finding the right person, time, and place. Others become encouraged to seek help after receiving extra encouragement to do so.
  • Creating a Holding Space: First-gen students frequently sought out help from people who made them feel cared for. Students established personal connections and were encouraged to ask for help when their mentors showed a genuine interest in their well-being, attuned to their needs, provided a non-judgemental space, and went the extra mile as a mentor. 

Implications for Mentoring 

This qualitative study reveals how resilient first-gen students are in the face of hardship and how strategic they are in seeking help. It provides practice implications for mentoring programs. Apart from providing more training and making counseling services more accessible, the researchers argue that universities can better promote help-seeking behaviors among first-gen students by designating specific people with clear roles to assist. Ensuring every student has a trustworthy person to turn to for guidance can help reduce the physical and psychological barriers first-gen. students experience. Small actions can make a big difference for first. gen students, whether learning names, greeting them, making non-academic conversations, expanding their office hours, etc., or encouraging first-gen. students to voice their concerns. Overall, mentors can help first-gen. students navigate higher education by nurturing strong, trusting relationships with personalized support.

To read the full study, click here.