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Starting a New Legacy

On My Mind with Mercedes Rutherford-Patten and Nicki Viso

Across the country, the makeup of university student populations is changing. First-generation students (FGSes) are organizing on campuses and prompting MLIS programs—such as the one we were enrolled in at San José State University (SJSU) iSchool—to rethink how they are engaging with students.

As representatives of the first generation of college graduates in our families, we face a distinct set of challenges entering grad school. Mercedes comes from a working-class family; both her parents held positions in manufacturing; Nicki’s parents pursued jobs in industries that did not require a college degree. Our parents encouraged and supported our decisions to pursue higher education with the hope that we would find secure and fulfilling careers.

When we started at SJSU iSchool, our knowledge about the academic culture and expectations surrounding a professional-level program was minimal. We felt uncertainty and anxiety dealing with unfamiliar structures and trying to figure out what we didn’t know, heightened by the fact that our families didn’t have the answers. We knew we had to engage with the iSchool faculty, but we weren’t sure how to go about doing it. We also had to navigate the transition to a fully online program long before the pandemic, which—as we all know now—requires self-discipline, time management skills, and intentional engagement with peers and instructors.

While we are fortunate that our families are concerned about our success, they were limited in their ability to help us develop the academic skills we needed in graduate school. Our isolation, coupled with insecurity about asking for help, meant lost opportunities to get homework assistance, improve academic discourse, develop effective study skills, and make useful career connections.

According to research on FGSes in online graduate programs, we are not alone in our experiences. At SJSU iSchool, Anthony Bernier, faculty advisor for an FGS group, and Megan Price, project manager, collected interviews from first-generation students. On the one hand, they found that FGSes recognize the support and pride of their families. On the other hand, they found that FGSes feel isolated because they lack rigorous academic skills and confidence as they try to build social capital and socialize into professional life. In addition, students who previously had received support from peers or professors during their undergraduate studies reported feeling less connected in an online environment, even as they acknowledged the format’s flexibility.

We appreciate the many opportunities the FGS group at SJSU provided us to network with peers. It started with a shared sense of identity and understanding and then evolved into meaningful conversations and exchanges of information, guidance, and emotional support for thriving in our studies. The confidence we gained through networking in FGS has transferred to other areas of our training, including group projects, video discussion boards like VoiceThread, and communicating with instructors. Imposter syndrome has decreased, as have our feelings of isolation.

As LIS schools move toward offering more online classes, or fully online programs, there are steps institutions can take to support FGSes on their path to graduation, such as an introductory course for learning online. SJSU iSchool requires all students to take a one-unit course prior to starting their first semester covering topics such as how to use technical tools like Canvas and Zoom. We found it helped to dip our toes in online learning before cannonballing into our first classes. Perhaps it’s possible to provide this course based on FGS status, allowing for more intentionality and self-awareness, including a greater focus on graduate-level academic skills.

LIS programs should also provide ample opportunities for students to network with one another, with faculty, and with professionals in the field in order to build social capital. All students, especially FGSes, benefit from having a platform designed to foster these types of connections rather than relying on a student’s initiative alone.

Lastly, institutions should promote student involvement in clubs and engagement with fellow FGSes. We found peer-to-peer interaction to be invaluable in increasing our confidence in our academic abilities and in learning how to better navigate grad school and entering the profession. Since our time as SJSU, we have both moved our careers forward in meaningful ways, starting new legacies for our families. Schools have the ability to facilitate that process.

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