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Lisa Kirby


Navigating the “Hidden” Terrain: Mentoring First-Generation College Students 

Lisa A. Kirby, Ph.D., Professor of English and
Director of The Texas Center for Working-Class Studies, Collin College 
Recipient of the 2020 Two-Year College Teaching & Mentoring Excellence Award 

As an undergraduate, I was fortunate to have many incredible mentors who helped guide my academic journey. These professors offered advice and encouragement in terms of my writing, critical thinking, and research. There is no question their support helped in my academic success and eventual admission to graduate school.  

However, there was one aspect of mentoring that was missing: as a first-generation college student, I was unfamiliar with many aspects of academic culture, and this was never discussed. Today, as a professor of English at a two-year college, I find this is true with many of my own students as well. As the Center for First-Generation College Student Success points out, in first-generation college students, there exists the “possibility that a student may lack the critical cultural capital necessary for college success because their parents did not attend college.”?While many first-gen students have done well academically, the transition to college may be a rocky one if they are not familiar with the “tangled web of college policies, procedures, jargon, and expectations… This pervasive ‘hidden curriculum’ can damage the confidence of first-generation students, lead to struggles in belonging, and result in departure” (Center for First-Generation College Student Success, 2017).  

My own mentoring strategy focuses on first-generation college students and bringing attention to these “hidden” aspects of the academy.  For those who may be interested in mentoring first-gen students, I offer some strategies I use to help these students navigate what is often an uncertain academic terrain. 

  • I start with being very open about my own first-gen background and experiences both in class and when meeting with students. Once students realize what we share in common, they are often more open in asking questions and sharing their struggles. 

  • In my classes, I spend time discussing “college success” strategies—how to take notes, read actively, communicate with professors, and so forth. While I realize many of my students are well-versed in the language and etiquette of the academy, I know many may also struggle with these academic skills, much as I did as an undergraduate. 

  • I set aside time to discuss basic aspects of our institution: registering for classes, resources such as counseling and financial aid, and other aspects of academic life that might not be addressed elsewhere. 

  • I maintain an open-door policy with my students, even after they are no longer in my classes. I strive to be a resource who can help them by writing letters of recommendation, serving a job reference, assisting with transfer admissions materials, or just lending a sympathetic ear. 

  • Finally, I focus on confidence-building. Not all first-gen students need this, and many are quite self-assured, but often a quick pep talk or reminding these students of their talents and abilities can make a big difference. 

First-generation college students may be academically solid, yet often they have never had exposure to elements of academic culture that many faculty take for granted. This can create serious obstacles to their academic success. By following these strategies, I hope to help mentor these students and help them navigate the academy more successfully. 


Center for First-Generation College Student Success (2017, November 17). Defining First-Generation.