Supporting First-Gen/Low Income Students

In conversation with Jennifer Crosby and Joseph Brown

As we engage in the important work of teaching and advising, it is important to be mindful of how a student’s background may influence how (s)he approaches challenges, interprets feedback, pursues opportunities, or engages with faculty.  What are the best practices for advising first-generation students, or students from a low-income family or community? How can being aware of these practices make us better teachers and advisors, and help all of our students thrive? We sat down with our friends Joseph Brown, the Director of First Gen and Multicultural programs and Jennifer Crosby, from the Center for Teaching and Learning for a conversation.


Q: Can you tell us a bit about your background and your roles here at Stanford?

Jennifer: I earned my B.A. at Stanford, my M.S. at Yale, and my Ph.D. at Stanford. My research has focused on how people respond (or sometimes fail to respond) to discrimination, and how group membership affects academic experiences, such as advising and classroom discussions. My current  position involves working with faculty and graduate students in a variety of ways, all with the aim of improving teaching here at Stanford.

Joseph: I am a first generation college student from San Antonio Texas (and an Army Brat) and I received my Ph.D. from Stanford in Social Psychology. I split my time between the Office of the Dean of Educational Resources and the H&S Dean’s Office, and I am continuing the programming for First Gen and/or Low Income (FLI) students, connecting FLI students to campus resources and opportunities.  I am working on extending the reach of our office by intentionally working with campus partners who help shape students’ early experiences on campus, and we are very interested in promoting authentic dialogue across race, gender and class.

Jennifer: I have been lucky enough to have known Joseph since I worked as a lab manager for Claude Steele and Joseph was a graduate student. Joseph was one of the first people I looked up when I returned to campus – we are both centrally concerned with the experiences of members of underrepresented groups. This encompasses both academic experiences and broader experiences on the Stanford campus and as members of the Stanford community.


Q: What are two challenges that students who are first-generation or low-income face that you think Pre-Major Advisors should be aware of?

Joseph: In my research and encounters with first-gen students two of the major challenges in communications with PMAs have been (1)  FLI students may not possess that sense of empowerment that lets them fearlessly engage faculty or take advantage of the resources available at Stanford, so FLI students often miss out on some of the opportunities that flow from those interactions and (2) Advisors may feel reluctant to check in on students for fear that those students may interpret this to mean you expect trouble or academic challenges. One unfortunate consequence of this reluctance is that an advisor may not learn of a student’s difficulties soon enough to help that student turn things around.


Q What concrete steps can we, as advisors, take to support our students as they face these challenges?

Joseph: Share your experiences! If you felt anxious about approaching faculty or were hesitant to ask questions in class, share your experience and give examples of how you got over your anxiety. You can challenge your advisees to ask a question or go to office hours, but have them practice with you first. Then follow up and see how it went. Set your advisees’ expectations early on by letting them know you will be checking in with them to make sure they are getting what they need to be successful. You can assure them that they WILL encounter difficulty and frustration and that is normal, and you are there as a resource. Ask the hard questions about mid-term grades, “So how DID you do on that Chem31 exam? What was your grade? Remember I told you I would be checking on you.” And let your advisees know about the resources that can help them succeed.

These recommendations are helpful to first-gen and low-income students, but they are also helpful to everyone.


Q:  What are three things you wish every PMA knew about how to help their advisees thrive?

Jennifer:  Stanford has amazing resources, and students are sometimes unaware of these resources, or think they should “tough it out and go it alone.” Using campus resources is a sign of thoughtful planning and a desire to make the most of your Stanford education, not a sign of weakness. Sometimes the skills and approaches students need to succeed at Stanford are simply different than the skills they needed to succeed in high school, but fortunately there are lots of ways to develop those skills.

Everyone sometimes feels like the admissions mistake, but everyone has something important to bring to the Stanford community. It’s important to know that the Stanford community can grow and change in response to the talents and different perspectives people bring. Students should know that they truly belong here, and there’s no one way to be a Stanford student.

It’s easy to feel intimidated by all of the talent and achievement here, and we sometimes spend too much time in fear of being “found out” as less amazing than our peers. PMAs can help students take risks, try new things, and embrace and learn from challenges and failures. It’s okay if something feels new and difficult, and it’s okay if things don’t go according to plan. It’s not getting a D in class or getting rejected by an a capella group that defines you, it’s what you do with and learn from that experience. I hope PMAs can help students raise their hands in class, try new experiences, and think of learning as an ongoing and iterative process.


Q: What resources are in place to support students who are first generation, or who come from a low-income family or community?

Joseph: Our office is there for FLI students and we have been holding office hours at Old Union, 2nd floor, for students to just stop in and introduce themselves and get to know us. We are continuing to hold events and programs for FLI students and we’re working with FLIP (the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership). In winter quarter we launch our First-Gen Mentoring Program that will match first-gen undergrads with graduate student mentors. And that’s just one of a number of our programs. And we are here for faculty and staff who want to help all our students thrive, so call or e-mail or just stop by, we’re happy to talk with you.

Joseph and Jennifer: The Stanford Resilience Project, Academic Skills Coaching, The Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, Community Centers, UAR Research Support,  and Community Engaged Learning Courses.