This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
Being the first in your family to go to college can be very daunting. You might have questions such as “Who do I go to for advice?” “Will my parents be able to help with the application process?” “If I go to college, will I be able to graduate?” “How do I pay for college?”
Sometimes students like you who are the first in their families to think about attending college are at a disadvantage because their parents haven’t experienced the application process or college life, and aren’t in a position to help them navigate the process. However, our research suggests that you may have a stronger support system than you think—if you are willing to tap into it.
Connections Increase Confidence
In a recent study, we found that Facebook connections can help first-generation college applicants believe in their abilities to both apply to college and excel once they’ve enrolled. Based on a survey of more than 500 high school students in lower-income Muskegon County, Michigan, we looked at how various factors are related to high school students’ confidence in their ability to apply to college and their expectations of doing well in college. We found that first-generation students who used social media to get information about how to apply to college felt almost two times more confident about their understanding of the application process than those who didn’t use social media.
When we asked students how well they expected to do in college, first-generation students reported much lower expectations than their non-first-generation peers. BUT, first-generation students who had social media connections who were already in college or had graduated from college—people that could give them information or advice—reported twice as much confidence in their ability to succeed in college, compared with their peers who had no social media contacts with whom to talk about college. What happens offline is important too: first-generation students whose friends thought it was important to get good grades and do well in high school reported feeling more confident about succeeding once they got into college.
This study makes us optimistic about social media and how it can be used by first-generation students. Our findings suggest that even if you are disadvantaged in terms of financial resources or parental support, there are ways to tap into resources you may not know you have via social media like Facebook or Twitter. This is encouraging because while students have very little control over factors like family income, their parent’s level of education and parental support, they do have control over their use of social media.
Using Social Media as a Tool
If you use social media to actively seek out information and ask questions of those in your network, our study suggests that you may feel more self-confidence about how to navigate the complicated college application process. Moreover, if you are able to use social media to connect with people who are in college and seek out positive role models, you will be able to believe more strongly in your ability to be successful in college.
But remember that social media is just a tool: its helpfulness depends on how you use it. One nice thing about sites like Facebook is that you can find out things about people that can help pave the way for good communication, such as interests or situations you have in common. For instance, maybe you are friends on Facebook with someone who is in college; check out their photos to see what going to college is like and don’t be afraid to reach out with questions about their school, major or classes. Most people are happy to take a few minutes out of their day to help someone, even if they don’t know that person that well. Research suggests that people you don’t know well can be more useful for some kinds of things, such as helping you learn novel information, than even your close friends or family.
In the meantime, we are pursuing this idea of tapping into your social connections further. Along with colleagues from the University of Oxford and MSU, we are developing a Facebook app designed to help students identify people in their networks who might be good sources of information and support about college. We plan to launch the app, tentatively called “College Connect,” later this summer. Other great apps that might be useful for students like you are listed at http://www.collegeknowledgechallenge.org/winners/.
Good luck! And don’t forget to put your network to work!
For more information, see: Wohn, D.Y., Ellison, N.B, Khan, M.L., Fewins-Bliss, R., & Gray, R. (2013). The role of social media in shaping first-generation high school students’ college aspirations: A social capital lens. Computers and Education 63, 424-436.