First Generation Students at W&M

As first-generation students ourselves, Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Research, and Alexandra Flores, Instruction & Research Librarian, were very interested in learning more about the experiences of W&M first-gen students. We read about a study of first-generation students by Duke University Libraries and thought a similar project at W&M could be beneficial.  Alex serves on the advisory council of FGLI, the First-Generation Low-Income Student Support group on campus. She brought the idea to the council who enthusiastically endorsed it, and we were off! 

Using questions developed by Duke, we held a series of focus groups with FGLI students in February and March of 2023.  Here are some themes we identified:  

Finding 1. Finances are a constant source of stress. 

In addition to tuition, room, and board, students must pay for day to day living expenses. The cost of laundry and printing were cited by many as being especially stressful. Students expressed frustration at missing opportunities to socialize with others because of event fees. Sometimes another student in the focus group would mention that waivers were available for campus events- which led to further feelings of frustration because you had to “know” to ask for a waiver.   

Finding 2. Faculty and staff assume all students come from a privileged background. 

When expressing concerns about finances or academic plans, students reported that faculty and staff would often direct them to ask their parents for help. But for many first-generation students, their parents did not have the means or knowledge necessary to provide assistance.  Some of our focus group attendees shared that they were estranged from their parents, lending an even more complicated lens through which to view the standard advice.   

Finding 3. Students like Swem Library. 

Students who spend time in Swem Library enjoy using the space, citing it as a “safe” space on campus.  They like hanging out in the Media Center and are amazed at the collections available in Special Collections.  They have had positive interactions with reference librarians through research consultations and library instruction sessions. They are enthusiastic about the help provided at the Front Desk, and about the stress busting events we host during Finals.  They love the therapy dog visits on Fridays.  They also greatly appreciate the resources they can access for free. 

Finding 4. Students pointed out areas in which Swem Library can improve. 

Like many campus libraries, Swem has differing levels of acceptable noise on each floor; the higher in the building you go, the quieter it gets. Currently, though, the newest computers and biggest screens are all located on the first floor.  Some students who work better in quiet wished the new equipment would be available on other floors.   

Students reported that sometimes the library could be difficult to use. Library of Congress call numbers can be puzzling, and maps of the stacks aren’t always current. While they appreciate Course Reserves, they found the Website to access reserves material confusing. Electronic resources like databases can be finicky, and students understandably wished accessing items could be more clear. 

Finding 4. Students wished they knew more about the library’s offerings. 

Again and again, when a student in the focus group mentioned something noteworthy about the library, another student would exclaim, “I didn’t know we had that!”  Students were especially interested in our Makerspace, course reserves, and free newspaper subscriptions.

Finding 5. Students crave a sense of community. 

Students shared that they often feel alone and isolated, surrounded by students with more money and family connections than they possessed.  They find the FGLI group to be a very good source of support but wish for more opportunities to connect with other first-generation students and for faculty and staff to really “see” them and their challenges.  They are very interested in making the most of their time at William & Mary and want to feel more like a member of the campus. 

Overall, the themes identified corresponded with findings at Duke and other libraries who have researched first-generation students. We especially resonate with a note from Duke’s report: “One important overall finding is that 1G challenges are student challenges: support or expansions of campus and library services targeted toward 1G students will help all students succeed.” 

What’s Next? 

We have shared this report with numerous people and groups on campus.  Within W&M Libraries, we have

  1. Redesigned the Course Reserves pages to be more user-friendly
  2. Allocated private funds to buy new screens and Macs for the upper floors of Swem Library
  3. Planned a FGLI meet-and-greet at the library in early September

For the fall semester, we are launching a personal librarian program which will match FGLI students with individual librarians who will offer assistance in research and maximizing the use of library resources. Alex will also provide information about free library resources to be included in the FGLI newsletter.