Abstract: Traumatic Stress and Risk Versus Resilience in First Generation College Students

This summer, my team and I will recruit incoming first-generation college students who will enter William and Mary in the fall. Prior to beginning college, participants will complete a baseline survey in which questions prompt responses about demographic characteristics and family background, ethnic and socioeconomic identity, social support, help-seeking beliefs and behaviors, future plans and beliefs about the likelihood of completing college. Following the baseline, follow up surveys will be sent during the students’ freshman year to track any changes in success, feelings of preparedness, and traumatic experiences. Data will be analyzed with SPSS to identify trends of trauma across different social groups and the academic consequences.

First generation and ethnic minority college students have lower rates of college completion and higher dropout rates (Bozick & DeLuca, 2005; Horn, Cataldi, & Sikora, 2005; Kewal, Ramani, Gilbertson, Fox, & Provasnik, 2007; Choy, 2001). One factor that might contribute to these lower rates of persistence involves traumatic and stressful experiences. This study will therefore investigate 1) the rates of exposure to trauma in first generation students and 2) the effects of the trauma on resilience of first generation students.

Despite the growing expectations of college degrees from U.S. employers (Arthor, 2010), underrepresented students complete college at a lower rate. Horn and Carrol found that 23.4% of first-generation students withdrew during their first year, while only 10% of their counterparts did (1998). With first-generation students leaving academia without degrees, it is crucial to identify the struggles that they are encountering as they enter college communities.

Many first-generation students also identify as ethnic minorities and low income (D’Amico, 1998) and experience additional stressors that distinguish them from majority students, including discrimination (Pieterse, Carter, Evans, & Walter, 2010). However, first generation students may lack coping strategies, making the adjustment to college especially difficult (Pascarella et al. 2004; Jenkins, 2013). These stressors can impact students’ feelings of safety, disrupting their emotional, mental, and physical well-being. Besides daily stressors, first-generation students are also at more risk of traumatic experiences, such as low-income neighborhood violence, prior to and during their time in college (Lott, 2003; Jenkins, 2013). Since first -generation students tend to identify as ethnic minorities and low income, immigrant trauma and community violence is extremely prevalent (Foster, 2001).

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