A PhD student & colleague, Brandon Thomas and I set out to learn how college students with a chronic condition are faring in the university setting. We also asked if the students were a first generation student, meaning that their parents haven’t attended college. We presented our findings at the National Communication Association conference last November (2017).

For many first-generation college students, those whose parents have not attended college, going to college is a dream come true. However, once on campus the transition to college life may present struggles for both the student and her/his families. Families, while proud of their child, may struggle to understand the pressures of attending university and the new life their child is creating. Because of that, they may still expect that their college student continue with family responsibilities that can hinder academic performance. As educators, mentors, and support personnel, it is important to be aware of the struggles first-generation students may face in order to help them succeed.

My colleague and I were interested in exploring some of the differences between first-generation and non-first-generation college students as a way to think about what types of communication interventions could be developed to assist first-generation college students in their transition to college life. For this exploratory study, we measured college students’ perceptions of self-efficacy, self-esteem, depression, loneliness, social support and communication with their parents. From our sample of 535 students, 120 (22.4%) identified as first-generation students.

Our research found that first-generation students had the same levels of self-efficacy and self-esteem as non-first-generation students. We think that these particular traits are key in helping students excel and overcome obstacles when applying and enrolling into college.

However, we also found that first-generation students had higher levels of depression, perceptions of loneliness, more distant relationships with their parents, and less social support. Unfortunately, depression and loneliness are impacting many of our students, but it seems to effect first-generation college students more. Ensuring that mental health resources are well advertised and normalized will benefit all students, especially first-generation college students, as they continue their endeavor through higher education. Michigan State University has made many strides in helping to combat issues of mental health, including My SPP, a mobile phone app that provides access to counseling 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Additionally, the counseling app can link students to the counseling staff on campus. The My SPP app may also help reduce stigma in seeking help, since it is through a mobile phone and is free and confidential.

The first-generation students in this study also perceived less social support and a harder time relating to their parents. Past research has demonstrated that it is normal for first-generation students to have a hard time discussing coursework, expectations, and overall college life with their parents. As part of MSU’s Residential Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative, MSU works with first-generation families to provide resources to help bridge the transition and make it as smooth as possible.

While we only have the students’ perspectives and did not gather feedback from their parents, some interventions that could prove to be helpful is to organize a monitored Facebook group or discussion board for parents of first-generation students. This group could possibly help provide the social support needed for families to be successful in this transition. It can help parents to know that they are not alone in experiencing these challenges. Additionally, one-on-one peer-mentoring program for parents could also be helpful for the parents and to help other parents.

With more students attending university and many of them being first-generation college students, it is important for the university to effectively communicate with the student and their parents and offer resources that can help all students, regardless of their background, to successfully transition to and complete their college education.


Holtz, B. & Thomas, B. (2017). Using Bronfenbrenner’s ecological framework to understand some challenges that first-generation college students’ encounter. To be presented at the Annual Meeting   of the National Communication Association, Dallas, TX November.

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