Supporting First in Family – “How first-generation students learn to navigate education systems: A case study of First Graduate”

“As Stanton-Salazar wrote, ‘Success within schools . . . has never been simply a matter of learning and competently performing technical skills; rather, and more fundamentally, it has been a matter of learning how to decode the system.’”

As an undergraduate student, I had the distinct pleasure of working for Breakthrough Fort Worth. As a summer math teacher, I still remember trying to challenge Octavio mathematically, telling the Tiger Team about UT, and encouraging students. Because I was transitioning from being a student of the program to a teacher, I knew how fun and helpful Breakthrough could be from my own experience. Seeing the power of a non-profit program firsthand helped me to connect with “How first-generation students learn to navigate education systems: A case study of First Graduate”.

“How first-generation students learn to navigate education systems: A case study of First Graduate” is a qualitative case study that utilized semi-structured focus groups and interviews for data collection. The study focuses on the First Graduate after-school program (FG) in San Francisco, California. The mission of FG is to “help students finish high school and become the first in their families to graduate from college.” Students apply to FG during seventh grade and receive support throughout high school and college. The researchers spoke with students, parents, and employees of the program to gain insight into the impact of FG.

In the literature review, the article highlights the “structural” issues that first generation students in high poverty face – lack of resources, unqualified teachers, weak curriculum. Additionally, the article addresses the equally important issue of “cultural capital” – navigating the unwritten rules of schools that tend to be rooted in the culture of the white middle class (It is important to note that the authors understand that all people bring cultural capital to the table, but distinguishes this type for this study.).

The authors focus on two research questions. One of the questions is listed here and taken directly from the article, the findings are summarized:

  • What kinds of support to navigate these systems [high school choice, unwritten rules of high school, and college admissions] did youth say they received from First Graduate staff and family members?
    • FG provided socioemotional support, educational brokering, and partnering with families. From a socioemotional standpoint, students commented on how carrying and supportive their FG case managers were. Additionally, FG served as the bridge between families and the education system by providing information and hands on support (Educational brokering). Lastly, FG worked with parents because in many cases they were the catalyst for going to college for the students and the could hold students accountable for continuing in the program.

In reflecting on the article, I absolutely love the distinction that the authors draw between structural and cultural issues that future first-generation students must face beginning before high school. It is essential that we as educators understand that not only are some of our students disadvantaged when they enter the system, but we continue to disadvantage them with the culture of the system. It’s factual, honest and realistic. Moreover, these truths inform our role in providing support.

In my last post, I wondered about the necessary components of a good support system. Educational brokering is the finding that is most compelling to me. The article describes educational brokering as the act of connecting families and educational systems and helping them overcome some cultural or linguistic difference. When we translate English to Spanish, Academic to AAVE, or Convoluted to Clearly Articulated, we are helping our families access the system. However, the process does not stop there. The authors refer to taking students to high school interviews or locating required paperwork for families. Educational brokering is literally standing in the gap and giving students and families the support necessary to reach their educational goals.

For future learning, I want to know more about educational brokering as a non-academic tool for equity. The work of mentors (shout out to Dr. J, Mr. Kev and Joe!) rely on this type of relationship. What do we know about it?

I suppose I have more reading to do…. Feel free to leave a reply below!


Kirshner, B., Saldivar, M. G., & Tracy, R. (2011). How first‐generation students learn to navigate education systems: A case study of first graduate. New Directions for Youth Development, 2011(S1), 107-122. doi:10.1002/yd.421



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