Understanding Experiences of First Generation University Students
Understanding Experiences of First Generation University Students

Amani Bell

Amani Bell is Senior Lecturer, Educational Innovation, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, (Education) Portfolio at the University of Sydney, Australia. Her primary research focus is how academics develop their teaching via critical reflection, peer observation and engagement with students. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Lorri J. Santamaría

Lorri J. Santamaría is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at The University of Auckland, New Zealand. She is an expert in culturally responsive education and the impact of cultural and linguistic diversity on the field of educational leadership. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2018


Content Type:

Book chapter

Education Level:

Higher Education



Related Content

Experiences of Indigenous and Non-Indigenous First Generation Students at an Australian University

DOI: 10.5040/9781350031869.0009
Page Range: 47–72

As authors, we acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, upon whose land we conducted this research, and pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.


If Australia is the Lucky Country, we must ask, for whom? Buckskin 2013

All university students begin as outsiders, but some are more outside than others. There are particular inequities faced by first generation and Indigenous students. Under-representation of Indigenous students and students from low socio-economic status (LSES) backgrounds in Australian higher education is the result of several complex and interrelated factors ( Universities Australia 2008; Hall 2012). Likewise, there are a range of factors that influence retention and achievement once students are enrolled at university, including socio-cultural capabilities, student motivation, teacher approachability, student time management, family attitude, institutional support and connections with other students (Devlin and O’Shea 2012; 2011). Although many Australian universities are working to increase access to higher education, our study shows that we need to take a more culturally responsive and sustaining approach to educating our students.

As part of the larger international study described in Chapter 1, we explored the experiences of first generation and Indigenous students at the University of Sydney. While various facts and figures were available from the university’s planning office (see, for example, http://sydney.edu.au/staff/planning/ ), we wanted to gather and learn from rich, personal accounts of students’ lived experiences. While quantitative studies are important, we agree with Trevor Gale’s opinion that ‘numerical accounts of population groups do not [and cannot] fully or adequately represent’ what needs to be said about equity in higher education (2015: 264).

The Australian context

A twenty- to thirty-four-year-old person in Australia is 4.3 times more likely to participate in tertiary education if at least one of their parents was tertiary educated than a young person whose parents had less than upper secondary education (Marginson 2015). However, once a student from an LSES background makes it into university, they do just as well as, or even ‘better than[,] their high-SES counterparts with otherwise similar characteristics – age, gender, non-English speaking background and ATAR[1] score’ (Dawkins and Krause 2015). And after graduation, there are ‘few differences in post-completion employment and salary outcomes between equity-group students and others’ (Edwards and McMillan 2015: vi). While this is good news, it implies that students from LSES backgrounds who enter university have more catching up to do, and have to work harder than their high-SES counterparts.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of Australian studies about the experiences of LSES, first generation and Indigenous university students. Studies have included monitoring various equity groups’ access and retention rates (e.g. Edwards and McMillan 2015), mixed methods studies involving surveys supplemented with qualitative data (e.g. King et al. 2015), theoretical papers (e.g. Gale and Parker 2015), qualitative studies (e.g. O’Shea 2007), reports of successful initiatives (e.g. Whiteford et al. 2017), and historical views (e.g. Forsyth 2014). There have also been regular pieces in the media (e.g. Bagshaw 2016). Below we summarize some of the key findings of the research about first generation and Indigenous students.

First generation students

A large study (King et al. 2015), which surveyed 5,300 first generation school leavers and conducted eighteen narrative case studies, found that first generation students are a diverse cohort in terms of age, previous life experience and expectations of university. All wanted a better life for themselves. Students incurred financial and personal costs, such as less time with family and friends. They lacked information on how to navigate university systems, and their cultural capital was often not valued by the institution. Overall, first generation students found university to be a transformational and beneficial experience.

Many of these findings were confirmed by a smaller study (n = 983) at a regional Australian university (Scevak et al. 2015). Additional insights from this study were that: first generation students were more likely to be female than non-first generation students, first generation students were more likely to be older, and first generation students were less confident in using the online learning management system.

Indigenous students

Australia’s Indigenous peoples are not, in fact, all one group. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) map (2016) is a powerful visual representation of the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, showing the large number of language, tribal or nation groups across Australia. As alluded to in Peter Buckskin’s quote at the beginning of this chapter, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have suffered many inequities since British colonization in 1788. Despite their diversity and tenacity, Aboriginal and Torres Strait people are ‘still marginalised’ and still ‘positioned as the other’ (Buckskin 2013: 2, 8), and racism is still encountered by both students and educators within Australia’s educational systems (Corr 2016).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have lower higher education retention and completion rates than other domestic students, despite efforts to boost participation (Day et al. 2015). A recent national study of student data from 2005 to 2013 found that Indigenous students have a completion rate of 47 per cent, compared to 74 per cent for non-Indigenous students (Edwards and McMillan 2015). Alongside these stark figures it is important to keep in mind that not all Indigenous students are first generation or LSES: ‘At least one third of Indigenous students are not eligible for the youth support allowance[2]’ (Gale 2009: 4).

Despite various accounts and studies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ experiences, and examples of ‘best practice’, Martin and colleagues (2015: 2) contend that ‘little is known about how teaching can be mobilised to support the persistence of Indigenous students’. They urge a view beyond ‘simplistic binaries’ such as ‘coloniser and colonised, Indigenous and Western knowledge’ (2). This group of scholars believes that ‘the relationship between teaching, learning and persistence for Indigenous students is far more dynamic than is suggested by such static, one-dimensional and sometimes pessimistic approaches’ (2).

A recent study based on interviews with twenty-five staff working in university Aboriginal centres found themes around the diversity of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student cohort, the need for Aboriginal knowledge systems to be incorporated across all disciplines, the need for strong support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and more outreach to school and family communities to motivate more students to come to university (Rochecouste et al. 2016). One successful and widespread initiative to support Indigenous students’ transition into and success during higher education is the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience – see https://aimementoring.com/about/aime/ for further information.

Theoretical framings

Throughout this study we kept in mind that the transition into and through higher education is a key period of identity formation for students (Gurin et al. 2002). Identity is a complex and fluid concept, encompassing many dimensions including race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and religion (Jones and Abes 2013). We are aware that for first generation students, and perhaps non-first generation students as well, university may bring their various identities into conflict ‘with little opportunity to reflect or make sense’ of what is happening (Jehangir 2010: 60). Theories of intersectionality can help us understand these pressures; for example, students who are both Indigenous and first generation may face different issues than those who are in one of those categories. Indeed, Edwards and McMillan (2015: vi) found that the more equity groups a student belonged to, the lower were the completion rates.

We have deliberately chosen to move away from the Western and Northern theorists that have characteristically informed studies of first generation students, towards Indigenous and Southern theorists, such as Veronica Arbon (2008), Karen Martin (2003, 2008), Linda Tuiwahi Smith (1999), Bagele Chilisa (2012), Reneé Smit (2012), Remy Low (2013, 2015) and Trevor Gale (2009). Drawing on Raewyn Connell’s (2007) conception of Southern Theory, Gale highlights the need to pay attention to power/knowledge relations in higher education, and especially to those who are under-represented in universities, and whose ‘cultural capital is … marginalised and discounted’ (2009: 1). Reneé Smit, drawing on her experiences in South African higher education (2012), cautions readers about the problems associated with deficit thinking about students from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds, including strengthening stereotypes, low teacher expectations, alienation of students and neglecting to think about structural injustices. Smit instead urges a focus on aspects such as institutional preparedness, viewing academic literacy as a social practice and nurturing what Ron Barnett (2007) calls the will to learn. We have drawn on the work of these scholars to inform all aspects of our research: design, methodology and analysis.

Local context: The University of Sydney

The University of Sydney is a research-intensive university founded in 1850, and is one of the ‘Group of Eight’, the so-called elite ‘sandstone’ universities. ‘The Group of Eight universities have the lowest percentage of low-SES students … and the distributions of low-SES students according to university type have not changed much since at least 2007’ (Parker 2016: 3). Traditionally the students attending the university have been from the wealthier areas of Sydney and from the private and selective high school systems. In 2014, of its 26,692 domestic undergraduate students, only 209 were Indigenous, and while first generation figures are not available publically, as a proxy there were 2098 LSES students (Australian Government 2015). The university has a long history of supporting its Indigenous students (Cleverley and Mooney 2010), and in recent years has placed increased emphasis on access and equity for LSES and Indigenous students ( http://sydney.edu.au/about-us/vision-and-values/diversity/social-inclusion.html ).

The university has a range of initiatives to encourage first generation and Indigenous students to attend university. For example, the Wingara Mura-Bunga Barrabagu[3] summer and winter schools are residential programmes for Indigenous senior high school students to get a taste of university life and help them see the university as ‘a welcoming space’. Over 950 students have so far gone through the programmes (Williams 2016). Indigenous students can access an alternative entry pathway called the Cadigal[4] programme (University of Sydney 2016). Students who are offered a place in the Cadigal programme attend an orientation session and a two-week academic skills workshop prior to starting their university studies. Students also have ongoing access to ‘tutors, academic advisers and dedicated student support services’ (Sherwood and Russell-Mundine 2017).

In this study, we wanted to look beyond the statistics to gather and listen to the experiences of Indigenous and non-Indigenous first generation students. We also spoke with some non-first generation students, to see if and how their experiences were different.


The researchers

We are a research partnership of an Indigenous researcher and a non-Indigenous researcher. Matt is Indigenous, and is a first generation student, and was completing a master’s degree at the time of this study. Amani is a higher education researcher, with Egyptian and Australian heritage. We took a partnership approach to the research, working together to shape the project (Smith 1999).

Consultation and guidelines

We consulted with several Indigenous members of the university community prior to commencing the study. We ensured that we followed the key guidelines around conducting research with Indigenous people, including paying attention to reciprocity, respect, equality, responsibility, spirit and integrity (NHMRC 2003). We aimed to engage with ‘Indigenous people as empowered people, rather than a problem that requires a postcolonial non-Indigenous response’ (Sherwood et al. 2015: 180). Students were invited via email to participate in the study. We indicated that we valued the time and expertise of the student participants, by giving them $50 AUD gift vouchers at the conclusion of the focus groups. We also had a distress protocol in place (Haigh and Witham 2015), though it was not utilized. Pseudonyms[5] have been allocated for reasons of confidentiality.

Focus groups

We conducted four focus groups, two with non-Indigenous first generation and non-first generation students, and two with Indigenous first generation and non-first generation students. We asked students to provide some demographic information via a form; we asked how they would describe their racial and cultural identities, their gender, their age, their degree, the year they started university, the high school/s they attended and which (if any) of their family members had attended university. Not all students answered every question on the form, and we emphasized the voluntary and optional nature of disclosing the information. Students in the focus groups were studying a wide range of degrees, from their first to fifth year of study. In the two focus groups with Indigenous students, there were five women and six men. The age range was 18 to 51, with an average age of 27.7. Seven were first generation, and four had one parent who had attended university. In the two focus groups with non-Indigenous students, there were ten women and three men. The age range was 18 to 22, with an average age of 19.5. Five were first generation, five reported that ‘every family member’ had attended university and one had one parent who had attended university. Students reported a wide range of self-described racial and cultural identities.

We used a yarning method (Sherwood et al. 2015) when conducting the focus groups. Yarning has similarities to Talanoa, as described in Chapter 2. It is a conversational methodology that focuses on establishing connections, is informal and relaxed, with a focus on telling stories and acknowledgement that the researcher is a learner (Bessarab and Ng’andu 2010). This conversational style and invitation for students to share their stories echoes the strong storytelling tradition within Indigenous cultures (Mckinnon 2016). As Sherwood and colleagues state: ‘The role of storytelling, including through yarning circles (a process used by Aboriginal people for thousands of years to discuss issues in an inclusive and collaborative manner), is an important means of hearing Indigenous voices in research’ (Sherwood et al. 2015: 180). For the Indigenous participants, we spent some time talking about where they were from and establishing connections, following Martin’s recommendations that research needs to start with the self and needs to include a sense of place and connectedness–relatedness (2008: 69). Including Matt as an Indigenous researcher was critical to the success of the focus groups with Indigenous students, as ‘the presence of Indigenous researchers … facilitates the free flow of information about Indigenous experiences’ (Sherwood et al. 2015: 180).

We asked the twenty-four students about their journeys into and through the university, using similar questions to those asked by the other WUN project partners in Chapters 2 and 5.

Journey into University

  1. At what stage/age did you first consider the possibility of going to uni(versity)?

  2. Have other family members or friends been to uni? If yes, how has this influenced you?

  3. What influenced your decision to apply to USyd?

  4. How did you find the admissions process for getting into USyd?

Journey through University

  1. Describe a bit about your first day at USyd.

  2. What do you most enjoy about your studies?

  3. What do you find the most challenging?

  4. What has helped you?

  5. What has hindered you?

  6. How do your family and friends respond to you being at uni?

  7. Do you have any suggestions for what might help first generation students?

  8. Do you have any advice for first generation students?

After the focus groups were transcribed, we conducted a thematic analysis of the transcripts (Braun and Clarke 2006), with a critical overlay of an Indigenous framework of decolonization (Chilisa 2012; Smith 1999). We followed the six steps suggested by Braun and Clarke (2006) of data familiarization, coding, searching for themes, reviewing themes, defining and naming themes, and writing up the findings. We paid particular attention to issues around power and race. As an Indigenous first generation student himself, Matt was particularly attuned to these issues.

Our findings

Our analysis revealed six themes, and we discuss each of these with examples from the focus group participants.

University as a foregone conclusion versus a complex decision

For non-first generation students, university was always on the horizon as a ‘foregone conclusion’ and was ‘just a given … from an early age’ due to family experiences and expectations. However, non-first generation students did not necessarily initially understand the purpose of going to university, which impacted their motivation:

My ethnic background is Chinese so I think from a young age it was almost like wired in me that everyone I knew just went on to uni after high school. [Also] I think because I went to a selective school … basically 100% of all the students would go on to uni. But then once I’d been at uni for a few years, I re-evaluated why I had come, and what qualification I really wanted. Because I feel like in high school I didn’t really understand what I wanted to do and what a uni degree would actually help me achieve. (Claire, female, non-Indigenous, non–first generation student)

Having a parent or sibling who had attended university helped some students feel that university was a possibility:

My mum was the first person I knew who went to uni. … She then went and did her masters while I was in primary school. … She has just completed her second masters and is about to start her PhD. … I’ve had uni around me all the time and I think that influenced me to come because I was comfortable with it. … She enjoys it and likes learning, so it just looks like something good. (Joanna, female, Indigenous, non–first generation student)

For first generation students a range of factors influenced the decision to go to university, including parental encouragement or being inspired to go to university by a particular teacher or careers advisor or by a visit to a university campus which made it ‘more tangible’. Other first generation students took the time to raise a family first:

I waited for my son to leave school and then thought I would have a go. I’m the only person in my family that’s ever been to university. I didn’t finish my Year 12, neither did anybody else, so – winning! (Vanessa, female, Indigenous, first generation student)

Some first generation students spoke about their strong personal motivation to come to university – wanting to improve their prospects (what Wong and Downie 2015 describe as a ‘means of escape’), for example:

I didn’t really have anyone around me that went to uni and I kind of thought I would be more successful than all these people … because my dad is a labourer and I thought I don’t want to do that, I want a bit more than that, so with everyone around me I was just like I definitely want to go further in life. (Veronica, female, non-Indigenous, first generation student)

And for some first generation students, the decision to enter higher education was a difficult and complex choice related to their identity:

My dad was a tradie[6] and my mum was a secretary, so it could have been a lot easier for me to just fall into something that I knew, rather than something that didn’t feel like me. (Eric, male, Indigenous, first generation student)

Some students showed incredible persistence in the pursuit of higher education:

I did the HSC[7] and got a terrible ATAR. I really wanted to get into [degree at USYD], so I called up [the university]. I said ‘I know I haven’t got the marks but I really want this.’ I’m just pleading for myself and the lady over the phone laughed at me. She said my ATAR wasn’t good enough and don’t even bother, so that was quite bad. I ended up going to [another university] for a year. I applied to USYD again, and I got a first round offer. I was really surprised because I think my one year of university made up 20 ATAR points to get me in, it was a lot. It was a long process, but I got in. I showed her. (Joanna, female, Indigenous, non–first generation student)

In summary, while university is a foregone conclusion for many non-first generation students due to familial expectations, for first generation students there are a range of factors that influence their decision to pursue higher education. These factors include encouragement by family or teachers, wanting a different life or campus visits. For first generation students the decision to undertake university study is sometimes complex, and may involve persistence in the face of rejection by university staff and the realization that gaining a university education involves moving away from their current identity.

The importance of support networks and programmes

The challenges of adapting to university life were described by many students as uncomfortable and disorienting, and the importance of support networks and programmes for all students was highlighted, especially in the creation of long-term social support. Most students said that their friends were their biggest support network:

They’re going through what you’re going through at the same time. I think I rely on my friends more than I would on my lecturers and tutors for even like content. (Rochelle, female, non-Indigenous, non–first generation student)

Non-first generation students often had the advantage of high school classmates starting university at the same time, but first generation students and those moving from outside the area were less likely to have a pre-existing group of friends at the university:

I feel like I really haven’t had a support network at all. … I moved from [outside Sydney] where I used to live and maybe like one of my friends also goes to uni but everyone else has stayed down there. It’s sort of bit difficult to make friends. (Sarah, female, non-Indigenous, non–first generation student)

In some cases the university was able to help by providing mandatory mentoring sessions, and one student gave an example of a helpful mentoring initiative that could be adopted more widely:

In education in first year we had our one hour tutorials then for an hour after that we had a mandatory workshop. We had three fourth year education students come in and talk to us, and as much as everyone in the class rolled their eyes and went ‘oh, another peer mentoring session’, it really did help with making friends and making connections. It really helped that it was compulsory and you had to stick around after your tutes and get to know people. (Charlie, male, non-Indigenous student, non–first generation student)

Family who had previously attended or were currently attending university were a source of support and advice:

My sister’s in her second year here, so I honestly wouldn’t know who to ask if she wasn’t there. She’s guided me through handing in the assessments – this is how you access this, this is how you access that. There was a lot of admin stuff in the first couple of weeks but it is difficult to get one-on-one help. So I’m mostly relying on people like my sister. (Megan, female, Indigenous, first generation student)

Students found it took a long time to come to grips with the many formal avenues of support, and some expressed apprehension about accessing formal support programmes:

I haven’t used any. Maybe it’s just a me thing but you get an email and it’s ‘come to this’ and … it gets quite intimidating sometimes I think because you’re going to be in room full of people who you have a common thing with, but you don’t know anyone. If I knew someone else doing it I would be a lot more encouraged to do it, but doing it by myself is really intimidating. (Joanna, female, Indigenous, non–first generation student)

I feel like support systems could be a bit more readily available. Uni’s obviously very self directed, but a lot of students are quite disadvantaged and it’s not so simple. Like ‘oh, you have to get your stuff together, just do it.’ Some people don’t have that sort of drive. So I think there does need to be a little bit more support, a bit more of an inviting sort of atmosphere and culture at uni. (Sarah, female, non-Indigenous, non–first generation student)

Indigenous students appreciated the social and academic support provided by the university’s Cadigal programme and from other Indigenous students:

The Cadigal support system, from the get-go, was second to none for me. They picked me up from day one and had me from there, which was good. Rather than me coming and finding my feet, they found my feet for me. (Eric, male, Indigenous, first generation student)

We’re all Kooris,[8] we all support each other. We find we’re mentoring other people. The guys in the year below us ask us ‘how do you do this?’ We go ‘oh, it should look like this’. (Vanessa, female, Indigenous, first generation student)

What is important to note here is that it has likely been some time, or a long time, since university staff first studied at university. We need to remember what it feels like and put ourselves in the shoes of our students. Such empathy will better enable staff to support new students, especially by being aware of the importance of peer support and that formal support services can seem intimidating and uninviting.

Cultural dissonances

Cultural dissonances were jarring for some Indigenous and first generation students, who mentioned the lack of common experiences with other students, who they perceived as ‘very different’:

I’ll go into class and I’ll try to chat with someone. … I found out this one girl I was in a class with and I was chatting to – she doesn’t have a job. She’s never had a job. She has a maid who cooks all her food … I’m just like, how can I talk to you? I’m at uni four days a week and I work four days a week – this is just what you do. Of course you cook your own food – what is that? (Joanna, female, Indigenous, non–first generation student)

I found during first year almost having to justify why I was here, because of high expectations and there were other students that were from selective high schools and for them it was a more natural process to go to Sydney Uni. (Natalie, female, non-Indigenous, first generation student)

Some students spoke about finding some lecturers ‘uncaring’ and feeling ‘brushed off sometimes when I ask questions’, for example:

I think the worst thing I’ve found is with some of the lecturers they tend to be a bit aloof. I understand they’re researchers and they have other jobs to do in the university but they’re also there to teach. … It’s hard trying to do reports or trying to ask questions of them if they don’t really care or act like they don’t care. That’s an issue I’ve had a couple of times. (Josh, male, Indigenous, first generation student)

Related to the theme above about understanding the importance of peer support, educators could do more to help first generation and non-first generation students find commonalities and productive ways to interact in class. Staff also need to be aware that they may be perceived as aloof and intimidating, even if that is not their intention.

Balancing university, expenses, family and a social life

All students found balancing university, expenses, family and a social life difficult. Some students felt ‘overwhelmed’ after moving from overseas or faced the challenge of moving out of home for the first time:

Being away from home, being away from family, that added a lot of stress. I found it hard to balance uni, work and life. Because essentially my bills would be coming and I’d be like freaking out. I’d be like ‘oh crap I can’t pay for this quarter of electricity’. (Ivy, female, non-Indigenous, non–first generation student)

Due to the high cost of living in Sydney, some students commuted from long distances:

It’s really difficult to get to early lectures being from a regional area. I looked into accommodation [closer to the campus] and it was $25,000 a year. It’s ridiculous and all the scholarships are for people who have 98.8 ATARs and there’s no way I could get that. (Joanna, female, Indigenous, non–first generation student)

My degree is like a full-time job in terms of hours. It’s nine until five, or longer, every day. You still have to study on top of that. Finding time to have a job, to have an income, to be able to eat food was a challenge. Relying on scholarships is pretty much the only thing I could do. If and when I didn’t get one for whatever reason – I didn’t fit the categories for whatever was being offered that year – it’s a real stretch. I’m currently living in a share house [in Sydney] and it’s expensive and food’s expensive (Ben, male, Indigenous, non–first generation student)

There are extra challenges for students who are parents:

The biggest challenge is balancing being a mum and being a student. With school holidays coming up, I don’t know what I’m going to do [about child care]. He’s kind of old enough to be on his own for a couple of hours, but if something happens it’s going to take me a couple of hours to get home. (Amanda, female, Indigenous, first generation student)

There were particular difficulties for some Indigenous students in being away from family and community, particularly around the cultural obligations associated with mourning:

A fair few deaths [happened] in my first year, so that was pretty hard for me. If I was closer to home I would have been able to duck home. But a five and a half drive for me is just that little bit too far, especially as I don’t have a car. (Eric, male, Indigenous, first generation student)

These findings highlight the need for staff to be aware that students are dealing with issues beyond their studies, such as the costs of living, commuting, work, caring responsibilities and cultural duties.

Reactions of family and friends

The reactions of family and friends included support, curiosity and lack of understanding about university life. Some families were very supportive, whereas other students found that friends and family did not understand the demands and realities of university study:

It’s hard having friends who will be like, we’re doing this during the week, it’s our day off. I’ll be like ‘I’ve got university.’ Even my boyfriend, because he works a nine to five job, doesn’t get that when I go home, I’m not finished university, I have to study. (Megan, female, Indigenous, first generation student)

Although family friends may not understand the university system, many students’ families were proud of their achievements:

My mum dropped out of school in year 7, so she thinks I’m a professor. As far as she’s concerned, I’m running this uni. She’s like, what’s a HD[9]? What does that mean? I said ‘it’s really good’. So yeah, she just doesn’t have a clue. She barely negotiated the school system but yeah, she’s very proud. (Vanessa, female, Indigenous, first generation student)

Some students spoke about not wanting to disappoint family and the pressure they felt to succeed:

My old man dropped out in Year 11 and my mum dropped out in year 10. They probably get more worked up [about my studies] than I do. Like for instance, if I was to fail a mid-term or something, they get a lot more worried for me than I do for myself. Because they don’t understand the whole system of how it might be worth 20%, not 100%. So I like to try to get Ds or HDs in everything that I have control of. (Eric, male, Indigenous, first generation student)

Navigating these conversations with friends and family can be an additional burden for first generation students. And while not all first generation students spoke about familial pressure to succeed, they often mentioned an internalized pressure – wanting to prove to themselves that they can succeed in higher education.


Another theme that emerged with many of the Indigenous students was one of empowerment against the status quo of the established power structures exemplified by the university:

I decided to come here because it’s the first Law School in the country. As far as I can see, it’s the source of a lot of oppression of, not just Indigenous people, but lots of people. So my thinking of coming here was if you want to make a difference you to go to where the big decisions are made. You go to the source of the problem. (Harvey, male, Indigenous, non–first generation student)

Yet when reflecting on a draft version of this chapter, Harvey noted that while his involvement in higher education has helped him understand its power structures, it can also be disheartening and frustrating to observe and experience the very slow pace of change within the university system.

Some Indigenous students found some of the content difficult emotionally:

Undertaking Aboriginal Studies, you learn a lot about the colonisation process and that’s very close to home with a lot of your ancestors, experiencing all of those issues and there’s still a legacy of those policies today. (Luke, male, Indigenous, first generation student)

One Indigenous student spoke about the importance of culturally appropriate outreach to Aboriginal communities:

The leader of the [outreach] program should be Aboriginal. In the past the guys who are running it have kind of misinterpreted how to address Aboriginal people or how to react to them. Sydney University’s really prestigious and we push this really prestigious option to everyone, but that’s not what it is for everyone. It’s more about having a go. If you’re coming and speaking to me at my school, and you’re telling me you studied 12 hours a day and you did all this and all that, it’s not realistic for me to feel like I can be here. When promoting to Aboriginal people they need to [understand] that it’s more of a family. Maybe talk more about actually making a difference and being to come back and inspire your family to do the same thing as you. (Eric, male, Indigenous, first generation student)

In some cases, students resisted Western dominance of historical knowledge presented by academics in favour of their own cultural experience (Dei 2008). One female Indigenous first generation student, Vanessa, spoke about Aboriginal Studies ‘getting taught by a white person’ and how that can be more emotionally difficult. But she also mentioned that being Indigenous has informed and aided her studies when she comments, ‘Well they’re not going to tell us we’re wrong.’

And students spoke about how their studies will eventually benefit their communities, for example:

My degree can also encompass mining, which is a bit of a taboo topic for Aboriginal people. But on the flip side of that, it also encompasses sustainability and environmental sustainability. So if I am lucky enough to be invited to write a thesis it will probably based on the financial stability or the environmental stability of an Aboriginal community, whether it be up north or back home. (Eric, male, Indigenous, first generation student)

University staff working closely with Indigenous students are likely already aware of the issues around empowerment, frustration with the slow pace of change, finding some topics emotionally difficulty and the importance of culturally appropriate outreach. Yet these first-hand accounts are valuable reminders of the need for sensitivity around particular topics and also of the variation in the experiences of Indigenous students.

Reflections on the data

Several of the themes are akin to those found in other Australian studies of first-year students, first generation students and Indigenous students. For instance, we uncovered quite similar themes to those found by Barney (2016), who interviewed fifty Indigenous students. Similarities discussed by students in both studies include the daunting nature of the first year, cultural and social isolation, financial difficulties and family responsibilities. Students in both studies mentioned similar success factors: determination, family support, motivation, university support and peer networks.

While we could identify these common themes, we also saw huge diversity among the students. As Trevor Gale (2009) cautions, it’s important not to view people from LSES backgrounds (or in this case, first generation students and Indigenous students) as a homogenous group. We hope that by presenting the rich and complex stories of individual students, we have avoided the ‘simplistic binaries’ described by Martin and colleagues (2015: 2).

We saw that many of the first generation students had a more motivated and purposeful attitude to their studies than non-first generation students. Some of the Indigenous students were empowered to take a stand against the status quo, linking with the findings of Martin and colleagues (2015: 10) that ‘Indigenous persistence is a complex process in which teachers and students exercise agency often in the face of self-doubt, failure, unexpected challenges and success’. Our finding of persistence in the face of adversity was also highlighted by Pechenkina (2016) in her study of an Australian university’s Indigenous unit – with one of the participants saying, ‘I want to succeed to prove the bastards wrong’ (8). The flipside of this empowerment and persistence, mentioned by Harvey, is the burden of the emotional labour and possible burnout caused by constantly encountering what Sara Ahmed calls ‘institutional whiteness’ (2012: 33) – and is similar to the stress reported by Indigenous academics when they encounter resistant and sometimes racist students and colleagues (Asmar and Page 2009).

First generation students whose family members don’t have first-hand experience of university may need support to view and develop ‘academic literacy as a social practice’ (Smit 2012). April Yee found that ‘middle class students tended to interact with others to succeed academically, while first generation students tended to rely on themselves’ (2016: 839). Non-first generation students felt confident to talk to their lecturers about any issues they were having, such as asking for early or extra feedback on draft work. First generation students felt they needed to do everything independently, which was often very labour intensive and ‘exhausting’ (847), and did not feel comfortable talking to their professors (Yee 2016). Clearly, first generation and Indigenous students need to feel that lecturers are approachable and to be given strategies of how to approach them.

Our research methodology values individual stories – ‘yarns’ – and these yarns show that students’ experiences of university are affected by, and affect, their identities in complex ways. Many of the Indigenous students strongly identified as such, and often had very strong links to their fellow Indigenous students, their families and their communities. Some aspects of university life were in conflict with their Indigenous identities, such as Eric not being able to return to his community to fulfil his cultural obligations around mourning, Harvey’s frustrations with the slow pace of change and the emotional difficulties experienced by Vanessa and Luke when studying Aboriginal Studies. The concept of intersectionality reminds us that being both first generation and Indigenous means encountering some additional difficulties along the way.

We’re particularly interested in reflecting on how academic knowledge might be disconnected from the communities from which the Indigenous students come, and may return to after their degree is complete. This cultural experience and knowledge is significant when thinking about the need to increase higher education participation for Indigenous students. Universities need to involve communities and families more, so that they understand what students are experiencing and don’t feel alienated, as if they have ‘lost’ that person (Uncle Brian Grant, pers comm, 2016). ‘Elders in residence’ programmes are used in some Australian universities (e.g. Chapman and Whiteford 2017) as one way to strengthen connections with Indigenous communities. The Indigenous Knowledge Makers project discussed in Chapter 4 is another fruitful example.

While the programmes offering scholarships and alternative entry pathways are gradually increasing enrolments, we need to consider the cultural backgrounds of Indigenous students, particularly when teaching courses that include discussion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges and issues. Arbon (2008: 58) points out higher education’s failure by its ‘focus on easing our pathways into and through tertiary education, rather than an affirmation of Indigenous knowledge’.

Many Australian universities, including ours, are working to embed Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing within curricula. Of particular importance is the recognition of Indigenous people as ‘yarners’ and ‘story tellers’ as a learning and teaching technique (Fredericks, Daniels and Kinnear 2016) – though Martin and colleagues (2015) caution against misappropriating and/or decontextualizing Indigenous knowledges and learning methods. Rochecouste and colleagues (2016) recommend that teachers develop their own awareness about Indigenous history and cultures. At policy level they advocate a whole of university approach, which is what the University of Sydney is attempting, and is detailed by Sherwood and Russell-Mundine (2017).

Practical recommendations

Teachers and leaders in Thomas’s study about LSES students in twelve Australian universities were ‘unable to describe a coherent, university-wide strategy addressin g the teaching and learning challenges and opportunities of a more socially diverse cohort’ (2014: 812). While the University of Sydney is certainly working towards a coherent strategy, we are not there yet, and in this section we provide some practical suggestions for achieving this aim:

  • Continue to focus on partnerships between universities, schools and communities.

  • Use first generation students’ stories and strategies for success to inspire prospective students and their families (e.g. www.firstinfamily.com.au ).

  • Provide support and resources for existing student-led initiatives. For example, students at the University of Sydney have set up a first-in-family support network for students and staff, with a Facebook group and associated social events.

  • Engage students as co-inquirers in these endeavours. We strongly believe that students themselves are best placed to understand and interpret their experiences and to make recommendations for change. Let’s stop doing research ‘on’ our students, and instead do research ‘with’ them (Bell 2016). Similarly, we need to involve other co-creators and co-inquirers, such as elders, family, communities and alumni.

  • Simplify how students navigate support services – more personalized support for students would simplify the bureaucratic nature of large institutions. Encourage students to attend with a friend if that’s appropriate and supportive.

  • Help first generation students know how to seek support from their educators, and make sure educators clearly signal that they are approachable.

  • Support leaders to be more culturally responsive, moving towards social justice and educational equity (see Santamaría and Santamaría 2016 for examples).

  • Look to the practical and provocative applications of the work of Indigenous and Southern scholars.

Questions for further exploration

A limitation of the study is that the students self-selected to participate, and so are likely those who are keen to share their experiences and perhaps have had mainly positive experiences (i.e. not at the risk of dropping out). Also we didn’t specifically ask about other aspects of students’ identities, for example linguistic diversity, sexuality, religion and so on, which may further intersect with their university experiences. Our study was a one-time, one-off data collection (though participants have been given an opportunity to give feedback on a draft of this chapter). We also wonder what are the ‘conceptual silences’ (Gale and Parker 2014: 747) that we have overlooked. What have we missed?

Other further areas for investigation include

  • What happens after graduation for first generation students? As the number of graduates increases, it might become harder to find employment. Is it a false promise of a better job/income?

  • What transformations do students experience as they progress through their studies?

  • What are the experiences of Indigenous and first generation HDR students? White (2009) suggests this is an underexplored topic.

  • What are the ongoing impacts for families, friends and communities?

  • What happens when we raise the aspirations of students to attend a prestigious, or any, university and then they don’t get in (see Low 2016)?

  • How can the students themselves become more involved in co-designing curricular and co-curricular programmes?

However, the main question we need to keep asking is how might we address the systemic inequities in Australian society? Addressing higher education participation is only part of the answer.


This project was funded by the Worldwide Universities Network and the University of Sydney, Australia. We thank all the students who participated in the study and Tanya Griffiths, Sarah Holt and Mary Teague for assisting with inviting students to take part. Thanks also to Sarah O’Shea for her helpful feedback on a draft version of the chapter.


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[1] ATAR stands for Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, and is used by higher education institutions as one of the selection criteria, or often as the sole criterion, for admission into degree programmes.

[2] The youth support allowance is a government payment available to those aged between eighteen to twenty-four years who are studying full time. Income and assets tests apply.

[3] A Gadigal language phrase meaning ‘a thinking path – to make tomorrow’.

[4] Cadigal is an alternate spelling of Gadigal.

[5] The pseudonyms are ‘Anglo’, as all students had ‘Anglo’ names. One student selected their own pseudonym.

[6] Australian slang term for tradesperson.

[7] Higher School Certificate – statewide exams and assessments that cover the final two years of high school.

[8] Koori is an Aboriginal language term to describe Aboriginal people from New South Wales.

[9] High Distinction.