PODCAST: A Firsthand Look at “First Gens”

First-generation college students face specific challenges such as decoding the “hidden curriculum” of college life, but they also bring strong positive traits such as perseverance to the table. Hannah Harding, a summer intern at Reaching Higher, talks about the research she’s conducting on “first gens” at UNH as well as her own experiences as a first generation college student. 


I’m Sarah Earle, and this is “School Talk.” Reaching Higher is fortunate to be hosting a John G. Winant Fellow through the Carsey School of Public Policy this summer. Hannah Harding, a rising senior at the University of New Hampshire, has been conducting research on first generation college students as part of her degree program, and she’s expanding on that research for us. She’s also a first generation college student herself. She joined me to talk about her own journey and what she hopes to learn through her research. 

Thank you for joining me, Hannah. It was really cool talking to you the first time when you spoke about being a first generation college student and discovering a passion for educational equity. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you decided to pursue a college degree. 

Hannah Harding

So I’m from Milford, New Hampshire. We had a lot of students in our high school who were really destined for college, it seemed. That was always part of their plan. And then we had a lot of students that were interested in maybe taking a less traditional path to schooling or not going to higher ed at all. Maybe they wanted to enter into a trade after school and jump right into the workforce. For me, I was one of those students who was always planning to go to college as soon as I knew what college was, and I had pretty big dreams as a high school junior. I wanted to pursue psychology. I had pretty big dreams to go, you know, all eight years and get a doctorate in psychology. I wanted to be a clinical psychologist and work with patients. That was my original dream. And then once I got to college I actually realized I had an interest in education as well, and not so much that clinical aspect. And so I decided to start combining education classes into my degree plan and pursuing both psych and ed. 

And now you’re approaching the final lap of your college journey. What has the experience been like for you and what factors have affected your trajectory the most? 

What I think changed my trajectory the most was actually how much I struggled with college the first year. A lot of first-generation students struggle with this. It stemmed from a lack of understanding of what’s called the hidden curriculum, and that’s how to connect with faculty, how to take advantage of office hours, how to balance work and life on a college campus. Because I didn’t have anyone in my household that went to college, I didn’t really have anyone to help me address those concerns, and so I felt myself starting to distance myself from school, questioning if I was really meant to be there, and that’s a pretty common experience for first generation students. And so I decided I wanted to look into that, what my experiences were as a first-generation college student and how other first-generation college students experience college. And that’s when I decided I wanted to add education classes into my curriculum and really gearing my career toward the experiences of students.

How did you grab onto this idea of educational equity and run with it? 

So once I decided I wanted to start taking some education classes, I decided I should get more in touch with this interest in finding what aspects of it I connected with the most. So I read a couple of books by Jonathan Kozol. He wrote a book called Savage Inequality, which is about the children living in the poorest sections of America and what their education looks like and how that affects what they’re able to accomplish in the years to come. Also, a couple of books by Peggy Orenstein. She wrote Schoolgirls, which is about the experiences of girls in the K-12 system in typically more disadvantaged areas versus more white, affluent areas, and what they experience, how it changes the ways that they connect to education. I started reading up on that, and I enrolled in a course called “Education, Poverty and Development” at UNH. And during this course, I actually gave a presentation with a couple of other students on New Hampshire school funding. It was during the Commission to Study School Funding, and we were able to bring in a representative from NH Listens to talk to our class, and we actually shared the video that Reaching Higher had made about school funding in New Hampshire. And so that was kind of the perfect storm for me, once I was able to connect my personal experiences with this interest that I had in educational research with my home state — it seemed like destiny actually. That’s when everything kind of took off for me. 

Tell us a little bit about the project you’re undertaking on first generation college students as part of your program of studies. 

UNH offers something called INCO 590, which is a one-credit opportunity for undergrads who are interested in exploring research and maybe developing a project of their own. And so I got to work with Dr. Judy Sharkey as my mentor. She was the professor for this class, and she’s also Chair of the Education Department at UNH. She helped me develop a project that was accessible to me and something I was passionate about. She helped me develop a project that involved interviewing TRIO students at UNH about their experiences with the program and what accomplishments they’ve been able to achieve, and that kind of thing. 

What is TRIO exactly? 

TRIO refers to an umbrella of federally funded programs that are designed to aid primarily first-generation, low-income students across college campuses and in middle and high schools as well. 

What has the project entailed so far, and what are your plans?

The UNH TRIO program is funded to support about 200 students each year and so right now I’m still in the stages of trying to recruit these students to participate. I’m hoping I can extend this to next semester when I’m back on campus and I can actually talk one on one with students hopefully in person and get to know them and get them involved in wanting to participate in what I’m doing. I’ve reached out to several student groups on campus that I think are going to be most interested in having their voices heard in this kind of research. So it’s very small and I’m still trying to get the ball rolling, but I’m hoping that I can kick it into gear once the semester rolls back around. 

What do you hope to learn about first generation college students through this project?

So I really want to focus on two things. One is the TRIO supports that the students find most useful for them, and what they’ve accomplished at UNH so far. Each student has, obviously, a different approach to education, a different approach to learning, and because TRIO has a pretty wide variety of services — they have specific academic courses advising, they have tutoring, they have advise on how to manage debt, student loans, how to apply for the FAFSA — so I’m really curious to know what services they find themselves turning to the most and how this has shaped their time at UNH. 

I think we sometimes discuss first generation college students in terms of the challenges they face and extra supports they might need. But you began your research focusing on some of the attributes that might give first generation college students an advantage. Can you talk a little about those? 

Absolutely. So when I first started looking into the experiences of first gen students, I was kind of looking for something to validate my experiences and the struggles I was having in higher ed. And I did find that. I found a lot of information about high dropout rates, rates of attrition, how hard it can be to finish your degree when you experience being first generation or low income. And that was great, but what really benefited me was when I found research in support of the positive attributes of being first gen, of overcoming these obstacles, because when you look at what it takes to succeed in higher ed, when you have these parts of your identity, you see things like curiosity, perseverance, self reliance. Those attributes really kind of blossom out of these struggles they’re going through, and they’re attributes that make you a great student and mean you’re going to do great things in the workforce in the future when you’re ready to put your degree to work. So I’m really hoping the research I can do, whether it’s now, or something on a larger scale someday, I’m really hoping I can focus on these kinds of attributes because it’s going to bring about more support for these students, and I’m hoping another student like me who’s looking up, you know, “what does it mean to be first gen,” is going to find something like this and say, “hey, what I’m going through is really hard, but look at all the positive qualities about it.”

What’s the value of this research, not just for those directly involved in the TRIO program but for higher education leaders, as well as for young people and their families?

When it comes to higher education leaders, I think first generation students really serve as a  great opportunity to increase rates of retention, which is something every college aims to do. When they see research like this that says, “look what these students are able to accomplish, beyond graduating, what are they able to contribute to a campus when they’re accurately supported, when they have systems like TRIO in place, look at all they’re able to offer your university.”

And for young people, maybe parents that are getting ready to send a student off to college for the first time, I hope this is really going to raise awareness of the supports that are out there. First-generation and lower income students typically turn to supports that are available on campus at a lower rate, in part because of awareness. So I’m hoping that anything I can do now or, like I said, on a larger scale one day, will raise awareness about these supports, and also taking this positive light to it helps students keep going, and kind of preventing that decline that I experienced, starting to pull away from school because I felt that I didn’t belong there. I’m hoping that if they see this, maybe it sparks them to believe that they can do it and they can overcome, to see their strengths really show in this research. 

School Talk is produced by our intern, Henry Lavoie. To stay up-to-date on education news, follow us on Facebook, sign up for our newsletter at reachinghighernh.org and follow School Talk wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.