Communication Currents

Where and How Do First-Generation College Students Receive Socially Supportive Communication?

January 4, 2018
Intercultural Communication, Interpersonal Communication
Perhaps more than any other demographic, first-generation college students (FGCS) are marked by high levels of stress and uncertainty as they transition from high school to college. While one-third of all U.S. college student entrants are FGCS, this group is more likely to drop out, less likely to seek support sources, and more likely to work while attending school. In a new article in Communication Education, authors Angela N. Gist-Mackey, Marissa L. Wiley, and Joseph Erba examine the types of socially supportive communication FGCS seek out and receive in their first semester at a four-year university. They apply a four-phase process of socialization for new organizational members to their study, highlighting ways that faculty and administration can increase formal and informal social support for FGCS students before they arrive, and once the semester begins. 
The authors’ analysis of interviews with 28 students from a predominantly white public university in the Midwest suggests that FGCS “seek out and engage mostly in informational and instrumental support prior to entering school.” They acknowledge that FGCS’ identities play a significant role in the transition between home and college, and contribute to a perceived lack of community on campus. Thus, they suggest that social support could “mitigate some negative experiences for FGCS in marginalized groups and for FGCS in general.”
Understanding Social Support
What exactly is “social support”? This could be supportive communication that is verbal and nonverbal, intended to provide or seek help; the authors note that when college students receive higher levels of this support from peers and family, they have increased satisfaction and a better adjustment to campus life. A further breakdown of social support includes four categories:
  • Informational: helpful information or advice that alleviates stress related to certain issues
  • Emotional: expressions of caring, concern, love, or trust
  • Appraisal: useful feedback for evaluation, including social comparison
  • Instrumental: tangible or material aid, such as time, money, or physical assistance

The Phases of Organizational Assimilation

For the purposes of this study, the authors examined how FGCS receive social support within the first two phases of organizational assimilation: anticipatory socialization (pre-college), and encounter (arrival on campus in first semester). In the former, FGCS gain information about the university and college culture from media, friends, family, peers, and other sources. But these students face a barrier to gathering that information: they are less likely to receive guidance about college from parents/guardians because of the very nature of their status. Once FGCS enter the encounter phase, they experience high levels of uncertainty, anxiety, and occupational or role socialization. The authors cite research that explains FGCS participation in student groups and activities and living-learning programs leads to better transitions to campus life. They also recommend intentional faculty interactions, within and outside the classroom.

Research findings

The interviews revealed five kinds of social support interactions during the anticipatory socialization phase: consuming organizationally produced media, engaging social media, seeking trusted sources of information, navigating financial pressures, and managing impressions. Here are some highlights:
  • Media produced by educational institutions were a dominant source of information (websites, social media, brochures).
  • Social media posts by university students revealed a personal perspective of campus life and experiences.
  • High school personnel and programs were a dominant source of trusted information.
  • Navigating financial issues was a common frustration for parents and students.
  • Family communication ranged from supportive to unsupportive.
Once students arrived on campus, FCGS quickly learned to lean on new friends, mentors, professors, staff, and resident hall assistants for social support. Positive experiences with student organizations, in residence halls, and with staff members and counselors all contributed to a smoother transition to campus life. Further, the FGCS now felt they could pass their new knowledge to younger siblings or to other future FGCS. Additionally, participants shared “that they imagined and hoped that attending college and earning a degree would ultimately lead to upward mobility, helping them and their families in present and future endeavors.” 

Further implications and suggestions

The researchers clearly illustrate the role social support plays in alleviating stress and uncertainty in FGCS prior to entering college. They encourage students to seek out informational and instrumental support, but also emotional and appraisal support. Perhaps even more important, the authors underscore the “unique onus of responsibility for FGCS, who might see themselves as responsible for giving information and support, even though they have not yet reduced their own uncertainty about their distinct experience as first-generation students.” They propose further research to explore the ways FGCS enact this “pioneering” role in later phases of socialization. 
Finally, the authors suggest increased information sharing by high school counselors and teachers, and partnerships between high schools and local universities that focus on sharing experiences among FGCS. Further, they encourage universities to promote first-generation experiences across campus and to provide more information, via university media and teachers, on how FGCS can connect with affinity groups and other student organizations to help ease their transition. Ultimately, the authors believe that “the more sources and types of social support students receive, the more likely they will be to persevere in their postsecondary education.”
This essay was translated from the scholarly article: Gist-Mackey, Angela N., Wiley, Marissa L., and Erba, Joseph. (2017). “‘You’re doing great. Keep doing what you’re doing.’: socially supportive communication during first-generation college students’ socialization.” Communication Education. doi: 10.1080/03634523.2017.1390590   

About the author (s)

Angela Gist-Mackey

University of Kansas

Assistant Professor

Marissa L. Wiley


Doctoral Candidate

Joseph Erba

University of Kansas

Assistant Professor