Why We Should Re-examine Our Approach to First Generation College Students

I hopelessly subscribe to Audible. I let my monthly allotted credits store up without listening to any new audiobooks, then I do things like buy 100 hours of books about the Civil War and think of how cool I will be at dinner parties when I say something like, “So, your story just reminded me of something that happened between Lincoln and General Grant.” When other people do those things, I hate them—but only because I want to be them. I digress.

A few months ago, I had extra Audible credits lying around. Amazon’s algorithm recommended a book called Education: A Memoir by Tara Westover. I downloaded it based on the title alone: I like education and memoirs. I didn’t realize how well it would fit into my thoughts on access, privilege, and how critical the role of education is in changing lives.

To be clear: there are some basic thematic spoilers below, but I encourage anyone interested in reading the book to go ahead and read it anyway. You will be surprised at how strikingly elegant Westover’s reflections are, and the reading experience is totally worthwhile.

Educated: A Memoir is about the path of a young woman who escapes her doomsday-prepping, government-fearing, anti-everything, traditional Mormon family in Idaho. Westover’s father was so paranoid of the government that she and her six siblings never stepped foot in a school—that is, until Westover was 16. I thought the book was going to be about fundamentalist religious groups but I was very wrong.

The book isn’t really about Westover’s family being Mormon. Educated: A Memoir is about escaping a troubled family and finding freedom in education. For her entire life, Westover was only taught to read and do math up to a fifth-grade level under the guise of “homeschooling.” At age 16, Westover decided to take education into her own hands. The point where the book took a huge turn for me (in the sense that I found myself continuing to listen to it while ironing pants because I couldn’t get enough) was when Westover decided she wanted to go to college. What unfolded from there was the type of sociological case study that happens when scientists find a new group of people who have never had encounters with the modern world. It was like I found a feral child and got to sift out what part of her experience with education was nature and what part was nurture. Hearing Westover’s story gave me a remarkably fresh-eyed perspective on what education can do for a person.

Here are some of my ideas:

1. What happens when self-teaching reaches its limit?

Westover self-taught the best she could in preparation for the ACT. Despite not having a high school degree or GED, she could automatically be accepted to BYU if she got a minimum ACT score of 28. It is impossible for me to imagine the process required to get to that level on your own. But, to be fair, she doesn’t fully get there on her own.

At some point, math (particularly trigonometry) prevented Westover from entirely self-teaching her own way to an ACT score of 28. Extra tutoring was required to reach that basic threshold, and that tutoring required her to drive for hours to her older brother who previously left their family and blazed his own education trail to BYU. Westover’s resilience conjured up so many questions in my head. If someone with only basic arithmetic skills can teach themselves math skills up to the point of trigonometry, what’s the role of a teacher in a traditional educational path?

Flipped classrooms are aiming to change the traditional dynamic of teacher and student. Flipped classrooms are a style of classroom where the students watch online lectures at home to learn the material, and in the classroom, the students work on what would traditionally be “homework” but with in-person teacher guidance. If some people can learn so much on their own, why do we expect and need teachers to be so heavy-handed in the classroom? Critically, the pedagogy to teach this way is predicated on the belief that students have the growth mindset to accomplish this—which can be considered problematic in its own ways. While flipped classrooms aren’t the only solution to this conundrum, they are certainly addressing the need for students to receive extra help with their personal blind spots.

Westover had only ever seen self-made people tackle their problems, so that’s what she did. Despite her family’s aversion to education, they never shied away from solving problems. One of the things I love about the book is that Westover doesn’t have a “bootstrapper” mentality. She’s not afraid to admit when she was fortunate. So while reading about her ability to overcome challenges, all I can think about is the fact that “learned helplessness” was never part of her childhood. What are we doing for our students who have more access to education than Westover, but who lack the guidance to embrace growth? I think the most important thing we can do for young people with lack of exposure to problem solving is to give them problems to solve in a guided environment. This is why programs like Girls Who Code, Latinitas, or Breakthrough Central Texas (my two favorite Austin non-profits) are so impactful—and why flipped classrooms are being examined as solutions. Once the habit of self-teaching is created, then the role of teachers can be optimized.

2. What the hell is a Blue Book?

In Education: A Memoir, Westover vividly describes the first time she took a college test. She paints a picture of the class opening their Blue Books in synchronized harmony—almost as if she had missed the previous night’s dress rehearsal. Until that moment, she had never even heard of a Blue Book. The only test she had ever taken was the ACT and she had no concept of what it meant to study, write essays, or read a textbook in the context of a college class.

So much of educational nomenclature and practice is a cultural norm that only makes sense to the exposed. It’s easy to see how the public majority would easily forgive Westover for not being prepared in that situation, or even be sympathetic to her. After all, how was she to know what a Blue Book is? Westover was raised in a backwoods, mountaintop junkyard family (literally). Is it as easy to forgive other disadvantaged, low-income students who do have a traditional educational background but have similarly little exposure to our educational norms due to a lack of support?

One of the best ways I’ve seen this combated with are first-year student success courses at colleges and universities. These courses are most commonly utilized at community colleges, but even elite universities like Washington University in St. Louis have a Center for First Year Experience (FYE). Schools like Wash U have seen their number of Pell recipients double in the past few years, which means they need to reevaluate their assumptions about their students. First year student success courses/FYE create a safe space to say, “Where the hell am I? What’s a syllabus? There is a writing center? What’s that for? What’s the difference between an advisor and a counselor?” If you don’t have the support network at home, your college has an obligation to provide it for you. But the best way to solve this is to start it young and that’s what makes the aforementioned Breakthrough and Latinitas programs so critically necessary.

3. What happens when our education creates a wedge in our families?

This phenomenon is a hard one to address. There is enough research (thanks Dr. Serrata) out there to say that first generation college students (FGCS) experience college differently, straddle two worlds (family versus college/university), and their student success rates are negatively impacted as a result. When you throw in the intersectionality and plurality associated with FGCS, such as race, gender, and socioeconomics, it’s easy to see that it’s a dissertation-worthy topic. Westover’s family situation creates an extreme case study in which we cannot ignore the impact of a child becoming more traditionally educated than their parents. Add female into the dynamic and watch some old-fashioned fathers’ heads explode. What’s fascinating about Westover’s family situation is that she is the youngest of 7 siblings and two of her brothers also have PhDs. How is it that in a family as tumultuous as hers, the three who “got away” ran towards PhDs? That can’t be a coincidence.

When we look at extreme cases, it’s easy to find patterns or draw conclusions on how something was possible. Similar journeys to Westover’s can easily be misconstrued by a reader as a logical, linear path to escape families, religions, or other potentially oppressive structures. When I’m reviewing scholarship applications for the Terry Foundation, I write “FGCS” on the margins because that explains a lot to me. As we begin to mandate college in our culture, we have to realize that there is no way around this problem. Someone has to be FGCS before we can get to SGCS. When admitting, teaching, mentoring, or coaching these students, we can’t ignore their pasts.