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First-Generation Students
Face Unique Challenges

First-generation Sam Houston State University students are doing better than expected in adjusting to college life, according to a study by Carlos P. Zalaquett, interim director of SHSU's Counseling Center.

"First-generation students are those individuals who are the first in their families to attend a postsecondary insitution," said Zalaquett.

"They are typically described as members of working class families, ethnic minorities, employed while studying part-time, and having poor achievement records," he explained.

"They are less prepared for college and exhibit lack of experience with or knowledge of time management and the economic realities of college life.

"They are intimidated by the educational system and do not understand when it can be flexible and when it cannot. They frequently describe their first exposure to the campus as a shock that takes years to overcome. First-generation students also typically have lower first-semester grades and high attrition rates," he added.

Often, first-generation students stand at the edge of two cultures--that of their family and friends and that of their college--and sometimes neither of these cultures supports them well.

"Because these students face these unique challenges in attaining a degree," Zalaquett said, "I conducted a study to investigate how they perform here at Sam Houston State University."

The research included an examination of the ethnicity, grade point average, and retention characteristics of 101 students whose parents never attended college (First-Generation), 244 students who parents had some college experience (Attended College), and 394 students whose parents graduated from college (Second Generation).

The hypotheses of the study were based on previous research primarily focusing on students attending community colleges. Those studies indicated that more first-generation students come from minority backgrounds than from any other group of students; first-generation students show lower levels of retention than any other group of students; and first-generation students have lower grade point averages than any other group of students.

"In 1997, we initially surveyed 1,013 Sam Houston State University students, a representative sample of the student body, and found that only the first hypothesis was confirmed," said Zalaquett. "A significant percentage of first-generation student come from minority backgrounds.

"First-generation students with a minority ethnic background have usually been linked to high attrition and low academic performance," he said. However, this study did not support these assumptions. More than half of the first-generation (61.9 percent) and non first-generation (Attended College 58.2 percent; Second-Generation 58.3 percent) initial samples remained in school," Zalaquett explained. "Moreover, students who remained in school had similar grade point averages after the first, second, and third year follow-up measures."

Zalaquett has several theories about why Sam Houston State first-generation students have been more successful than their counterparts at other institutions.

"Since a large proportion of the students attending this university come from rural or semirural areas, it is possible that students feel less threatened or more comfortable in this particular college environment," he said.

"It is also possible that instructors exposed to this specific population of students and area become more familiar with their behaviors and needs and therefore facilitate their adaptation to the academic environment," he said.

Whatever the reason, "We are doing something right," he added.

The results of Zalaquett's research have been printed in Psychological Reports, 1999.

- END -

SHSU Media Contact: Julia May
October 25, 1999
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