Inclusive Classroom Strategies That Support and Empower First-Generation College Students

I recently facilitated a two-hour workshop to mostly faculty and some staff and students at Nevada State College, a four-year public institution right outside of Las Vegas.  NSC’s population primarily are low to moderate income first-generation college students, many of whom are also returning adults with full-time jobs.  In consideration of the students, I was asked to present practical and tangible things that professors can do in the classroom given the unique experiences of first-gen students.

Prior to my visit, I consulted with my BRILLIANT friends and colleagues across the country and here’s what they had to say on the matter:

random prof who looks happy teaching
just a random prof who looks happy teaching

I share my experience as a first-generation student and use that to discuss the importance of campus involvement and mentorship–this is where I plug the student org that I advise!

As for assignments, I give them at least one paper where they can center themselves in the analysis, which helps them perceive themselves as authoritative knowers.

Also, I make an offer to write letters of recommendation *if they participate and do well in the class.* Once I make this announcement, I see a remarkable shift in some of the students who have aspirations for internships, scholarships, etc., but don’t know how to ask for letters.

I also don’t assume that they know what kinds of support services we have on campus, and integrate information about those services into the discussions as they apply to the course content.

~Larissa Mercado-Lopez, Fresno State University, women’s studies

I’ve learned students really like work that has them moving and more than just lecture. I try to give them group work in the classroom and activities so they can become part of a discussion.

I’ve also learned to read their body language and give them a “breather” break when possible. Videos or short clips really help, too. We have a generation of young people that have grown up with different technology than the one I grew up with (like internet) so they are very hands-on and react good with multiple ways of learning.

~Elizabeth Gonzalez-Cardenas, California State University, Long Beach and California State University, Northridge, Ethnic Studies

I do a lot with unwritten rules… A kind of “why do they [profs] do that?”

~Amy Baldwin, Director of University College, Literacy & Writing Faculty, University of Central Arkansas


I think approaching every course– and every skill set– as if it is not self-evident is crucial. So not assuming that there is one way to take notes, to close read, to use tech or blackboard or whatever you are using, to structure a paper, to make an argument, etc.

I think if you make the nuts and bolts of what you are asking not just transparent but something you come up with as a group in class, there’s more awareness that first gen-ers already have the skills they need (so less self-doubt) and more clarity on what can seem like invisible norms and rules they haven’t been let in on at home or in high school, necessarily. So the class is less like a club you are joining late and more like a game we are all learning to play, and helping to shape/name the rules.

This and always varying the way students can contribute and participate in class, so that everyone gets days to be a leader/facilitator built-in, as well as pairs, small groups, peer workshopping, etc. that way those with outsize confidence who feel overly prepped for college aren’t the only ones talking/shaping the conversation.

In other words, solid student-centered learning–it’s not just about the teacher/student dynamic! It’s about the students, period– ESP first gens and other vulnerable students.

And take every class to the library! It’s not just the practical skills of research they can learn there– it’s how to formulate a research question at all, and how to change it once you’ve started reading.

~Samantha Pinto, Georgetown University, Department of English

 Putting forward the notion of growth mindset at the begin in of class, explicitly discussing a variety of learning strategies, making an effort to connect with all students from the start and getting them to see me as a resource from the start.

~Curtis Bennett, Loyola Marymount University, Department of Mathematics and Associate Dean, Seaver College of Science and Engineering

I would consider also getting their back story, personal stuff, maybe a survey to discuss during one on one’s with you. In particular, I recall how my mother didn’t believe that the library was open until midnight, so I would have to continuously explain myself and why I hadn’t called sooner. Negotiating familial expectations and cultural norms might still be real, even for gifted first geners.

~Helen Alatorre, Assistant Dean of Students for Leadership, University of Wyoming

Encourage students to discuss their academic assignments, projects, goals etc with their family – not to discount your family’s intellect just because they didn’t go to college.

I also make sure to explain acronyms and offer virtual or phone office hours if they’re too nervous/unsure of doing face-to-face office hours.

~Dimpal Jain, California State University at Northridge, Department of Education

Make their friends allies in their success. Form study groups. Check in on one another.

Remember that campus services such as tutoring, writing centers, counseling, etc. are for their use. I’ve seen students feel either ashamed of seeking help or misperceiving how much help their classmates get.

Make time to keep in touch with family and friends.

Multitasking while reading does not work.

Maybe ask them what kind of life they imagine for themselves. I found that some students would talk about being a doctor or lawyer because they didn’t know what other kinds of jobs could help them earn a living and still be happy. If they could meet people who were first gen and are now doing something else, that might be good.

Be very attentive in class and work to look attentive.

I wish I had known how membership in student organizations could be beneficial after college.

~Tracy Curtis, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Department of Afro-American Studies

I talk up the importance of struggle, mistakes, uncertainty and even failure and persistence. I talk about how writing is always hard. Even for me and all professors. I talk about my learning new sub fields and the joy and terror there. I let them see that they should value all of that.

Eliza Gibson y Rodriguez, Loyola Marymount University, Department of Chicana/o Studies, chair


Because I discuss the role of social context in determining experiences as part of my course content, I address the hidden curriculum and socialization to educational practices. This allows me to directly address first gen student issues, as just one element of difference in educational institutions. I have to be careful to frame as a strength, as well as challenge, but I have to do so for all of the backgrounds I discuss.

I also try to create some degree of transparency and also place myself in the first gen camp and how it shaped my experience as an undergrad.

Also, ‪Rachel Washburn did a great series at the CTE a couple of years ago that addressed our assumptions about what students come into the classroom knowing. One of the workshops was about unpacking this knowledge so that as instructors, we are more explicit about teaching our students practices and processes that we might think of as “general knowledge,” but are actually disciplinary-specific ways of thinking and knowing.

~Anna Muraco, Loyola Marymount University, Sociology Department, chair

I do my best to constantly switch back and forth between facilitating and teaching and mentoring. I take time in each class to talk about my own process of writing and studying to make my thinking an object of analysis. Lots of – “here’s how I would do this/answer this/approach this/strategize to do this.”

~Denise Pacheco, Executive Officer, Office of the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, University of California at Los Angeles

Finally, Emily Daniell Magruder, Director, Institute for Teaching and Learning for the California State University system, pointed to a fantastic resource in the Transparency in Teaching and Learning project at UNLV.

Robin Cresiski, Vice Provost (l), me, and Shantal Marshall. Assistant Professor, psychology and my homie for all-time (r)
Robin Cresiski, Vice Provost (l), me, and Shantal Marshall. Assistant Professor, psychology and my homie for all-time (r)

So takeaways?  Some faculty may already employ these strategies into their classrooms; others may use them but may not be aware what the strategy is called; and then the vast majority may not be aware that they may need to adjust their teaching for different audiences.  It is very possible to both hold high standards for your students while also providing a road map for how to get there!


Young, Gifted and Black

White people love “gifted” children, do you know why? Because an astounding 100% of their kids are gifted! Isn’t that amazing?

~Stuff White People Like

Our son is identified as “gifted” when he is in the second grade. When he brings home the official school notice, we burst out laughing.

Sure, we’ve always considered him to be a bright kid, very serious about LEGOs and inclined to the occasional insight.  (“I am not a nerd; I am a mammal,” he once declared).  But gifted?  He was only seven years old.

According to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), there are a few ways that students can qualify for Gifted and Talent Programs, commonly known as GATE:

  • Intellectual Ability
  • High Achievement Ability
  • Specific Academic Ability
  • Creative Ability
  • Leadership Ability
  • Visual Arts Ability
  • Performing Arts Ability 

A teacher, parent or student (!) can make a referral  for GATE screening.  In our case, we had no idea that our son had been identified or tested.  We later find out that most testing begins in second grade, but students may qualify for Intellectual Ability as soon as second semester of kindergarten.

Once a student is identified as gifted, she “requires an environment which encourages extremely high levels of abstract thinking, motivation, interest, achievement, peer interaction, and a radically accelerated pace of learning,” and she also becomes eligible for specialized programs like School of Advanced Students (SAS), targeted magnet programs, Honors and Advanced Placement courses, etc.

And here’s the kicker: the gifted designation stays on a student’s permanent record for perpetuity.  It doesn’t matter what grades the child receives, he remains in the gifted program until he leaves the District or graduates from high school.

But we don’t know any of this at the time.  We just shrug and don’t think anything more of it.


One of these kids is not going to college.
One of these kids is not going to college.

As a gifted student, our son now qualifies for the School of Advanced Studies (or SAS) at his public middle school, essentially an honors track for basic subjects like math, English and science.  He mixes with “regular” students in  journalism and physical education.

The school requires all students to wear a uniform.  But one of the English teachers mandates that the sixth grade SAS students tuck in their shirts to differentiate themselves because “they are going to college,” she says.

Because he had not been tested in elementary school, one of our son’s best friends, a student of color, applies for the SAS program.  He is denied several times before he is finally admitted in the seventh grade.

When "regular" classrooms are too scary . . .
When “regular” classrooms are too scary . . .

Although the middle school is over 80% black and Latino, most of the SAS kids are not. I request a meeting with the principal to discuss the demographics of the SAS program.  I am armed with a copy of Whiteness as Giftedness for support.

She tells me that she is aware of the racial imbalance. And she discloses—without irony, regret or hesitation—that if the parent of a white student does not feel comfortable with her child in “regular” classes (because the black and Latino students are “too loud”), then the student may request a “social promotion” and be transferred to the gifted program.

I look around to see if there are hidden cameras anywhere.  Surely, the graduate students back at my office at UCLA are pulling a prank on me.  No one would really admit to such a thing out loud would they?  Right to my face?



Four years later, when she is in the sixth grade and also at the same middle school, my daughter says that she is fed up being one of three black kids in the honors classes. She wants to leave the school altogether.

In a preemptive strike, I warn her that she might expect something similar when she gets to high school. Her target school, University HS in West LA, has a similar population. The SAS program there also is diverse I tell her.

“That means not a lot of black kids, huh?” she responds cooly, Intellectual Ability in full effect.

The old middle school principal is fired, so I meet with the new one, an affable African American man that many of the parents adore.  I express my daughter’s concerns and tell him that we are looking at other school options.  He tells me there’s nothing he can do to diversify the SAS program. Kids either arrive at the school “gifted” or not.


To address the disproportionate number of underrepresented (i.e., black and Latino) student populations in gifted programs, beginning 2011, LAUSD requires ALL second graders to be tested, eliminating potential teacher bias and parent intervention.

A 2015 report reveals that the LAUSD gifted testing process has been compromised due to suspicious results.  During the 2012-2013 academic year, entire classrooms in some cases were above the 99th percentile thanks, in large part, to “pre-exposure” of the test used to measure giftedness.  In other words, some internet savvy and well-resourced parents were able to find the GATE instrument online and had their student “practice” before the actual test.

One of my daughter’s best friends, also African American and currently in the ninth grade, remembers taking the GATE test back in the second grade.  “It was pretty easy,” she shrugs. “Just a bunch of shapes and colors.”  I ask what stands out most of her experience.

“Being gifted to me . . . was a time where the so-called gifted kids would be pulled out of class and given special treatment.  They were made to feel as though they were better than everyone else.  The kids who weren’t in the GATE program would think of themselves as not as smart as the other kids.  Children chosen to be in the [GATE] program would boast about being a ‘smart kid’ putting others down as they did so.

Being tested at a very young age to begin with really doesn’t make sense.  People change, along with their abilities and strengths.”

Pearl, 14, has plans to become an entrepreneur and is opening an online store this year.  Harvard University is her top choice.  For now.

We Don’t Know You Like That: Welcoming First Generation College Students to Campus

The start of a new year in college brings with it a variety of orientation activities, like Convocation, Matriculation pledges, sing a longs and campus walks.  While most new students are uncertain what to expect once they arrive to campus, first-generation college students may be even more perplexed or uncertain of themselves.  Many welcome week or weekend activities presume that parents and their families are already familiar with university traditions and campus culture.  But what about first-gen students?

Based on my experience working with this population (and my own personal experience), here are some suggestions for making them feel equally welcome and engaged at the start of school.

Have a targeted first-gen welcome session.

The University of Southern California recently hosted a welcome session for first-generation college students and their families.

No matter how many students on campus identify as first-generation college, it is important to have targeted sessions for this population.  An hour long panel or lunch goes a long way and also provides a great opportunity for new students to meet other students from similar backgrounds.   First-gen faculty, staff and administrators should also be invited and encouraged to share their stories and a bit of their personal background.

Respect their space.

Yeah, never do this.

The Human Knot and Birdie on a Perch only make sense in two universes: summer camp and college orientation.  For the rest of the world, these getting to you know you activities are just downright weird. They require too much touching, personal confessions and sharing of personal space that the average first-gen student is just not willing to do, especially not five minutes after meeting  a group of strangers.  Keep the ice breakers brief, meaningful (e.g., How Did You Get Your Name?) and free of bodily contact.

If a student opts out or is visibly uncomfortable, don’t make him feel badly for not participating or showing school spirit.  Trust takes time.

Let parents and families know how long they are expected to stay . . . gently.

move in

It’s an unspoken rule that parents are expected to bring their student to campus, help them move in, stay long enough to meet the roommate, and then head out shortly there after.  But in a recent NY Times essay, author Jennine Capo Crucet describes how those expectations are not made clear. Whether due to excitement or fear, some families may plan to stay on campus all day and take some time and observe the new environment that their kid will be living in.

And when students are expected to be on their own, that message should be communicated clearly but gently.  The time for departure can be an especially emotional time for first-gens.

Develop family oriented programs.

Account for multiple generations and blended families when welcoming students.
Account for multiple generations and blended families when welcoming students.

Many activities for parents during welcome week involve meeting administrators, most of whom their own student may never see again.  Who knows what a provost does, for example?  Further, a language barrier may exist.  Move in weekend may find the families of first-generation college students feeling proud of their student but extremely nervous about what is expected of them because the terrain (including the terminology and physical landscape) may be unfamiliar to them.

When developing welcome programs, be culturally sensitive and aware that many families value interdependence and not rugged individualism. Develop activities that are inclusive of multiple generations, including grandparents and younger siblings.   For instance, group photos are a great way for the entire family to express their enthusiasm.

Some people get dropped off and not moved in.

Be on the lookout for solo flyers. They need even more support and attention.

While some students may bring mom, dad, grandparents and siblings when they move into their residence halls, some students are dropped off rather than moved in.  Schools should be on the look out for students who are checking in alone or whose parents have to leave early.  In these instances, a friendly RA or peer mentor should be dispatched to assist such a student and to stay with her until other students arrive on the floor or until a campus-sponsored event or activity begins.

Have clear expectations and agendas.

Clearly written descriptions are very helpful.
Clearly written descriptions are very helpful.

Telling a student to go to an event just because it is “fun” or “cool” may not be the best approach.  Instead, give a brief overview of what the activity is, how many people might be there, how long it lasts and generally what a student can expect to find.  Transparent calendars or agendas are helpful, as well.  This would mean including brief descriptions of events and activities.


When we take first-generation college students into account, it often forces university staff and administrators to address WHY we do what we do.  Take a step back and look at campus traditions. Are they as clearly articulated as they can be?  Are the goals and desired outcomes transparent and inclusive?

Ultimately, we want all students to feel welcome right from the start.  And with the right amount of resources, support, and acceptance, new first-generation college students can and will thrive in their first year.