“Hi, my name is […] and I’m a first generation student”, said…hardly anyone ever. While the concept of ‘first-generation’ or ‘first-in-family’ students has received ample public attention in the Netherlands in the last few years, most people don’t grow up thinking of themselves in those terms. Rather than a common way to identify, it is a social science category that is used to understand and describe the workings of our educational system in relation to social inequalities. What happens to the way people self-understand when such categories and group-labels enter public discourse? In this short article, I explore this question by discussing examples from a recent participatory research project that looked into the onboarding process of new students – in particular those first in their families to enter higher education, or “first-generation” students – at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS). How does a concept like “first-generation student” interact with students’ own stories about who they are? Can it open up helpful new ways for people to understand and reposition themselves in the face of inequality? Or does it mainly re-stigmatize and perhaps even re-activate past traumas? Reflecting on the social life of scientific categories and labels helps to use them with more precision, and without inaccurate assumptions of neutrality or of isolation from other social dynamics. But perhaps more importantly, it helps understand how they may or may not serve the people they reference.
First, some context. In the Netherlands, applied universities offer so-called “higher professional education” (the Dutch acronym is hbo). In tertiary education, it represents a midway between practical professional schooling, or mbo, and the theoretical training offered at classic universities. In turn, this reflects the Dutch secondary school system, in which learners are assigned to one of three main levels. A hbo education holds an ambivalent status that corresponds with its middle position: On the one hand, it is a form of higher education that gives access to higher paid jobs. Moreover, successfully finishing one year of hbo gives access to most university programs otherwise only accessible for learners with a pre-academic high school diploma (only 20-25% of all Dutch learners). On the other hand, as a form of vocational training, it remains tied to the practical education offered in the mbo, and which generally prepares for lower income careers. Historically, the hbo not only qualifies students for “higher” order professional jobs, but has an emancipatory function for people from working class- and/or practically schooled backgrounds. While this stratified education system is based on an ideology of meritocracy, it strongly ties into social class and status inequalities (Elffers 2022, see also Van de Kamp 2023). In vernacular, practical schooling is considered (and called) “lower” education that serves supposedly less intelligent people than those in hbo and the university.
In recent years, public and scholarly attention for those first in their families to attend “higher” education in the Netherlands has increased, with hbo and university often lumped together. In the academic context, this evolved from a discussion around achievement gaps between particular categories of students (e.g. higher drop-out rates in the first year, less university enrollment). It has become clear that characteristics such as migration background or pre-educational trajectory interact in complex ways, but also that parental educational level is a highly predictive factor (Elffers 2022). This concern has tied into public concerns with rising inequality in society to inspire several interventions. For one, the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS) launched an annual three-day summer bridge program for first-generation students in 2019, called “Tune In” (Veraa 2020). This program consistently receives positive evaluations from its participants, which suggests it has a strong, positive impact. For example, a 2022 participant who moved “up” from a practical level secondary school wrote about the first day of the program: “All my fears [for further schooling] have melted away. Because: I feel welcome”. She describes how in her schooling trajectory thus far she had been made to feel inadequate and unseen, and eventually depressed, but that Tune In has given her a new sense of confidence (Alken 2022, translation LdC). At the same time, recent empirical studies of first-generation studentship in the contemporary Dutch context are far and few (cf. Matthys 2010, Wildhagen 2015, Van de Korput 2020, Van de Kamp 2023). So, in the summer of 2022 I set out to do a small case study of the process of onboarding at AUAS with a focus on first-generation students, together with colleague Esther Kamara, and two assistants with first-hand experiences in the matter, Ashana Nagesar and Gilbrano Plet. Our main questions were how new, first-generation students experienced the transition into the hbo, and how creative methods for storytelling could be used for social inclusion.
We designed a research process for a cohort of 15 first year students, whom we recruited on a first come first serve basis among the participants of Tune In and at an introductory first-year fair. Eventually, we started out with students from seven different AUAS programs of which twelve made it to the proverbial finish line. Over the course of the first semester (September-January) we invited our participants to provide input in four ways: 1) a multimodal diary about their first few weeks at the university, 2) a walk-along interview about their experiences on (and off) campus, 3) a life story interview, and 4) an interactive group session in which we asked them to share stories with others, and to reflect on their support needs in the first months at AUAS. The students received a once-off allowance provided they participated in all four components. The aim of the project was to provide the university with input for a better understanding of the process of becoming a hbo student and suggestions for more inclusive onboarding. In addition, I hoped to raise and improve participants’ self-awareness and by proxy their sense of belonging in the process of data collection.
How could this work? Wildhagen (2015) and Van de Korput (2020) emphasize how setting students apart as “first-generation” runs the risk of activating the stigma of a poor or working-class -background, and feeding the associated shame and alienation. Van de Kamp (2023) nevertheless foregrounds the affirmative potential of targeted and explicit support for first-generation students (see also Keddie 2011), even though much of Wildhagen’s concerns resonate with his own experiences of entering “higher” education as a child from a poor and “lowly” educated background. The consistently positive evaluations of Tune In by participants also suggests that grouping together first-generation students can have beneficial effects.
Inviting people to share experiences and background stories means asking them to re-examine and rework what they know about themselves. That is never a neutral, void-of-content question. It asks people to select and highlight particular elements of their life, to consider certain aspects more important than others, according to the research focus and the theory behind it. It also inevitably urges people to understand themselves in a particular vocabulary, i.e. the language through which the researchers understand their topic. Such language, as any discourse, is formative: it not only reflects the world, but shapes it too. In principle, it has the capacity to empower as much as victimise. How this pans out is an empirical question. In our project, several moments and results stood out that speak to this question of self-understanding and the potential for empowerment.
We made an effort to invite participants to express themselves in their own words (or images), and we conducted open-ended, topical interviews. Nevertheless, through our thematic focus and our instructions for the assignments, we nudged our participants to understand themselves 1) in relation to their parents’ schooling, 2) in relation to transitional moments in the Dutch education system, and 3) as newbies, whose school careers and experiences command special attention and support. This resulted in narratives that, on one hand, zoomed in heavily on anxieties, setbacks and undervaluation in primary- and high school. On the other hand, this conjured stories of ambitions, perseverance and the excitement for hbo or the university. These foci were especially prominent in the life stories. Despite extensive personal variations, these revolved around overcoming obstacles and social injustices on the basis of personal character and/or the support of parents, teachers or friends.
The way our research assistants – some years ahead of the participants – understood themselves illustrated this, too. For Ashana, the first-generation story was one of overcoming social anxieties. When asked what advice she would give future first-generation students, Ashana said: “Do not be afraid. Everyone wants to help you. Go meet [with people]. Send your mentor an email. Because my classmates helped me too. That people won’t think you’re weird. I thought they would, but this was more in my own head.” Gilbrano in turn linked his experiences as the first in his family to attend the hbo to his outlook on fatherhood: “First generation means: being thrown into the deep end. Now I can better prepare my daughters: work on your planning. Don’t be afraid to talk to teachers. If there’s anything, tell us [parents] right away. Do not hesitate. Sometimes I wanted to say something but then I was ashamed, I didn’t want to look stupid. Try to make it your own. (…) To this day my father asks [about my studies]: what exactly do you do? Myself, I would like to be more closely involved, show more interest”. So, from the vantage point of “first generation” Ashana and Gilbrano could make positive sense of their experiences.
For those who had participated in Tune In, the way our project invited reflection on their relationship with higher education appeared as a continuation of the program that they appreciated. This came out particularly in the group session. In one exercise, students shared a high and a low point in their school careers with each other in a few keywords only. They wrote down these “telegraphese” stories on a flipchart (without names) and put the flipcharts up on the wall by way of an exhibition. We then invited everyone to read the group’s combined stories. While there had been quite the buzz in the room before this moment, suddenly the group went quiet. Everyone stood still, their eyes fixed on the paper. Nobody uttered a word and we could hear a pin drop. A sense of focus and awe became palpable as the group processed the stories, some of which concerned heavy themes such as attempted suicide. When we asked the students to form a circle and to share their thoughts and feelings, they said it made them realise that everybody had a story and that they were not alone.
Then, half an hour later, M., a participant, exclaimed: “Why can’t you be our teachers?!”. She had just shared a story of how she felt brushed off when she tried to enlist her teachers’ help and their reply was to “look it up in the syllabus”. In this exercise, we had asked the students to discuss and present in subgroups a moment that characterised their experience as a student thus far. Throughout the research, the students had shown an effort and willingness to share their stories beyond what can be expected from a financial incentive, and M.’s remark provided a clue as to why. As a former teacher, I knew M’s perception of our team’s versus her teachers’ capacities for meaningful engagement indicated the lack of opportunity for it in the curriculum more than teachers’ abilities or intentions. The research project seemed to uniquely provide a space for this kind of engagement. At the same time, (new) students’ need for reflective time and personal connection is widely shared and not beholden to first-generation students.
In the week before the group session, we had sent each participant a summary of their input in the research in the form of a two-page vignette, written by the team-member who had interviewed them. To our request to please let us know if we had made any errors or misrepresentations, one student responded by telling us we had used the wrong pronouns. Several others let us know they had been touched by the vignettes. A participant whose schooling had thus far been overshadowed by medical issues explained: “After so many conversations with so many counsellors and doctors in whose reports I never really recognized myself or what I actually told them about my life and what I was going through. I always had to correct them and haggle over what I needed. Then I have this one hour-long conversation with you and it’s simply right, this is really what I shared and who I am. This is really me. I even forwarded it to my parents and they were also like wow, who made this, this is beautiful”. Another participant expressed that drawing her lifeline in preparation for the life story interview had made her feel proud. Revealing the road she had already travelled, it affirmed a sense of perseverance in her. She said the interview was the first time she had put her story together in this way, and that it had given her confidence.
These statements, in line with Tune In’s positive evaluations (Veraa 2020, Alken 2022), suggest that an invitation to reflect on and narrate oneself as a “first-generation” student can spark positive effects.
In our research project, it provided opportunities to confide and reflect: It established moments and manners in which the students could articulate their experiences, create stories about themselves, and be actively listened to. Although this conjured many painful scenes from their past and zoomed in on the discomforts of their present situation (as new and supposedly ill-fitting in the hbo), it also allowed the students to reinterpret those scenes and their meaning. While this was an invigorating experience when it drew out a sense of power or pride, it was also a sensitive exercise. Some participants were in the middle of working through traumatic childhoods. Some were still very upset about the way previous schools had treated them, or about the social injustices of racialised prejudice or of medical misdiagnosis that had marked their and their family’s lives. The assumed specialness of so-called “first-generation” student lives and -experiences that informed our research summoned some of this pain and upset. At the same time, it put forward that they are worthy of inquiry and worthy of attention. Moreover, the research enabled a sense of connection with other people on the basis of these presumably special experiences and lives. From the students’ feedback it seemed that being presented with the opportunity and incentive to make and share one’s stories served an important need for recognition and connection.
So, can a label such as “first-generation student” be a tool for empowerment? Is it a helpful way for people to see themselves in a new light? Or does it re-stigmatize and burden people? Both are possible. If it is accompanied by space for creative self-reflection, by active listening and by the opportunity to share with others, the label can work positively: it can become a basis for social connection and for reworking misrecognition and forms of othering from the past. It can make space for under-listened-to stories. Perhaps, if managed with pedagogic care, it can become a badge of honor. Then it can become a positive group identity.
To construct a meaningful story about oneself, to be recognised, and to be an active participant in the way you are socially identified and labeled are common human needs not beholden to first-generation students. But it can work for them in particular ways. It can make room for reworking the “school anxiety” (Alken 2022) that may plague them more than others, amidst the inequalities of a stratified education system. Whether this helps with study progress and how it affects the systemic reproduction of inequality – in other words, whether it empowers people consequentially and long-term – remain important questions.
Rather than inherent in the language itself, the formative capacities of labels and categories such as first-generation are always latent. This means their effects depend entirely on the conditions under which they are drafted and deployed. As Walton et al. (2023) show, interventions to convince students they too can be successful in higher education only really work if they are supported by the rest of the institutional culture. In other words, if their propositions can become true in the given environment. This is key. In the case of the “first generation” label, the question is how much space is available in the institution, and in the curriculum, for meaningful interaction about it? And what does the term come to represent as it travels through an institution such as AUAS: does it come to indicate deficit and neediness, inducing expectations of underperformance? Or does it evoke an appreciation of roads less travelled and lead to respectful support and affirmation of students’ potential?
Of course, our small research cohort is far from representative of the first-generation student population at AUAS, if only for the heavy self-selection bias. These were all students who were sufficiently positive with regard to their first-generation status to be willing and able to engage in a further exploration of it in the first place. But the rising number of applicants for programs such as Tune In at AUAS, or Van de Kamp’s program Baanbrekers [“Trailblazers”] at the University of Amsterdam, suggests that the potential for empowerment is great.
Alken. S. 2022. Van angst voor school naar zingend de collegebanken in. HvanA, 7 September. Available at: Gastcolumn: van angst voor school naar zingend de collegebanken in – HvanA (Accessed 13 June 2023).
Bathmaker, A.M., 2017. Post-secondary education and training, new vocational and hybrid pathways and questions of equity, inequality and social mobility: introduction to the special issue. Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 69(1), pp.1-9.
Bol, T. and Van de Werfhorst, H.G., 2013. Educational systems and the trade-off between labor market allocation and equality of educational opportunity. Comparative Education Review, 57(2), pp.285-308.
De Bruijn, E., Billett, S. and Onstenk, J., 2017. Vocational education in the Netherlands. Enhancing teaching and learning in the Dutch vocational education system: Reforms enacted, pp.3-36.
Elffers, L., 2022. Onderwijs maakt het verschil: kansengelijkheid in het Nederlandse onderwijs. Amsterdam University Press.
Keddie, A., 2011. Supporting minority students through a reflexive approach to empowerment. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 32(2), pp.221-238. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2011.547307
Van de Kamp, M. 2023. Misschien moet je iets lager mikken. Atlas Contact, Amsterdam.
Van de Korput, J. 2022. Eerstegeneratiestudenten: een groep apart? Journal of Social Intervention: Theory and Practice, 31(3), p.64-71. DOI: https://doi.org/10.54431/jsi.743
Veraa, F. 2020. Een vliegende start op het HBO – Eerste ervaringen en opbrengsten van HvA Tune In 2019, een zomerbrugprogramma voor eerstegeneratiestudenten. Lectoraat Kansrijke Schoolloopbanen in een Diverse Stad, Hogeschool van Amsterdam. hva.nl/binaries/content/assets/subsites/kansrijke-schoolloopbanen/rapport_hva_tune-in_2019_lectoraat_ks.pdf?1605271158645
Walton, G.M., Murphy, M.C., Logel, C., Yeager, D.S., Goyer, J.P., Brady, S.T., Emerson, K.T., Paunesku, D., Fotuhi, O., Blodorn, A. and Boucher, K.L., 2023. Where and with whom does a brief social-belonging intervention promote progress in college?. Science, 380(6644), pp.499-505.
Wildhagen, T., 2015. “Not your typical student”: The social construction of the “first-generation” college student. Qualitative Sociology, 38, pp.285-303.
 See for example Van de Korput 2020, Wildhagen 2015 and ‘Wie als eerste in het geizn gaat studeren, moet heel wat obstakels overwinnen’ by Patricia Veldhuizen in NRC 30 November 2022.
 Around 40% of AUAS students have parents without first-hand experience in higher education (Veraa 2020).
 There are sub-levels and there are (limited) options to switch between levels. For a more nuanced discussion of this system, see (ref).
 See Figures – Society | Trends in the Netherlands 2019 – CBS, last visited 13 June 2023.
 The status distribution among types of education and jobs in the Netherlands is, of course, more complex and dynamic than can be discussed here. For example, as a consequence of recent shortages in technical professions and other crafts, the value of some mbo-diplomas is changing. (ref)
 See Matthys 2010 for an extensive qualitative study of a generational cohort of academics from working class families in the Netherlands in the 1960s and ‘70s.
 The title of our project was ‘Hoe word je een hbo’er x Creatieve methoden voor storytelling in hoger onderwijs’, which roughly translates as ‘How to become a student meets Creative methods for storytelling in higher education’. It represented a collaboration between our respective program groups: Promising School Careers in a Diverse City and Creative Methods for Social Change.
 Hbo stands for “hoger beroeps onderwijs”, which translates as “higher vocational education” (HVE). In the Dutch educational system, the hbo is hierarchically positioned between mid-level vocational training (mbo) typically associated with low status careers, and academic education (university) that prepares for elite positions. For a more thorough and nuanced understanding of this system and its repercussions for students’ social standing, see De Bruijn et al. 2017; Bol and Van de Werfhorst 2013; also Elffers 2022. For a discussion and contextualisation of recent trends in HVE in Europe, see Bathmaker 2017.