Exploring the college transitional stories of first-generation college students engaged in division III athletics

Zlotkowski, L. (2023). The unique challenges and demands of first-generation college students who participate in division III athletics. Journal of First-Generation Student Success. https://doi.org/10.1080/26906015.2023.2222050

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • First-generation college students face more challenges than their peers in navigating college.
  • Because student-athletes need to maintain their athleticism and academics to succeed, it’s imperative to understand how first-generation college student-athletes handle the challenges and demands of being a student and athlete.
  • Developing intentional relationships can help address this issue and bolster students’ sense of belonging on campus.
  • This study utilized Schlossberg’s Transition Theory* to assess the experience of first-generation college students who engage in Division III athletics.
  • Having a sense of belonging on campus was crucial. The participants perceived college as their home and their teams as their families.
    • Belonging to a close-knit network of team members and coaches who provided support helped make the transition to college smoother. Group chats and texts were particularly helpful.
  • Imposter syndrome, self-reliance, and resilience contributed to their college transition experiences.
    • Student-athletes also utilized their skills and knowledge to navigate college.
    • Many of them experienced imposter syndrome as an athlete and as a student. Some tried solving their questions before seeking help from others due to their concerns about coming across as unintelligent and their desire to fit in.
    • Despite this, self-reliance helped students overcome their imposter syndrome.
    • Looking back on their early college experiences, the participants learned from their initial hesitations and could pinpoint how they changed.
  • Providing resources and an inclusive, supportive environment early onward can improve the transition for first-generation college student-athletes.

* = Schlossberg’s Transition Theory argues that positive personal growth as individual experiences is essential for a successful transition. It accounts for external (e.g., sociological traits and institutional structures) and internal (e.g., coping mechanisms, behaviors, and perceptions) variables that affect a person’s transitional experience.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

This narrative research study examined the college transition stories of first-generation college students who participated in Division III athletics. Using Schlossberg’s Transition Theory as a framework, interviews were conducted with eight participants who actively participated in Division III athletics. Themes that emerged were: college as home and team as family, self-reliance, and overcoming imposter syndrome twice. Findings suggest opportunities for college administrators to help first-generation college student-athletes to feel a sense of belonging early in the college transition process, prioritize building a culture of support, and avoid assumptions of the competencies of incoming students to foster an environment of inclusion.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

This study concluded that first-generation college students who participate in Division III athletics experience a successful transition from high school to college when they see their new campus as a second home and their team as a second family, when they can successfully rely on themselves for obtaining needed knowledge and information, and when they can overcome feelings of imposter syndrome both as first-generation college students and as student-athletes. According to Schlossberg’s Theory of Transition, a successful transition is one where a person can feel positive personal growth; growth is not necessarily tied to a high GPA, playing time, or even retaining at the institution.

These participants were forced to overcome the feeling of being an imposter twice: both as first-generation college students struggling to find their way and fit in on a college campus while still feeling connected to family at home, but also as student-athletes who wants to prove they can be as successful competing in college as they were in high school. To overcome those feelings, students must have a strong sense of self-reliance. This self-reliance can help the students to navigate the confusing college search and athletic recruiting process, preparing academically and athletically for college, and completing their first semester as college students and athletes. These accomplishments can also give the students a strong sense of pride in themselves. Finally, this study found that feeling like college is home and a strong support network within the team who acts as family on campus are important for first-generation college student-athletes and their transition to college.

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