“Not Your Typical Student”: The Social Construction of the “First-Generation” College Student
This study challenges the idea that classifying students as first generation is necessarily empowering or helpful for students. The analysis reveals how one college’s discursive construction of the first-generation category benefits the institution at the expense of the students who are classified as such. Using in-depth interviews with staff and first-generation students, along with observation of events aimed at these students, I analyze the discourse about first-generation college students at a selective college and students’ reactions to that discourse. I argue that power operates through the first-generation category by serving the following institutional interests: (1) helping the school to instill a strong sense of institutional identity within first-generation students and (2) providing first-generation students with a hybrid social class identity that discourages them from developing a critical social class awareness. The analysis reveals an institutional discourse about first-generation students that portrays them as academically deficient and in need of cultural transformation. This discourse discourages students from organizing around social class issues by pushing them along an individualist pathway, which is embedded in the meritocratic ideal of individual achievement and neoliberal discouragement of collective class action.