Alone in a Crowd: Balancing the Social Demands of College

Document Type

Conference Presentation

Conference Title

American Educational Research Association Annual Conference


Denver, CO

Conference Dates

April 30-May 4, 2010

Date of Presentation



Melissa proudly announced her acceptance at a highly selective university to family and friends during her senior year of high school. “I really thought this was my chance to do something with my life and help my family,” she explained with a wide grin on her face. Melissa excelled throughout the four years in high school, both academically and socially. Attending a low-income school that was predominately Latino provided a comfortable space for her to succeed.

Objectives: Students attending low-performing high schools face many challenges during the transition to college, including inadequate academic preparation, limited college counseling, insufficient understanding of financial aid and minimal guidance throughout the transition process (Adelman, 2006; Venegas & Hallett, 2008). The ability of these students to negotiate the transition and achieve degree completion depends upon their understanding of how to navigate institutional hierarchies, social obligations and personal commitments (McDonough, 1997). This paper has three objectives: 1.) To identify the barriers a first-generation, Latina faced during her first semester in college; 2.) To explain how she navigated the social pressures of the college experience; and, 3.) To discuss the process of constructing a life history with a participant who differs in age, race and gender.

Perspective or theoretical framework: Social networks provide the opportunity for individuals to gain access to capital. However, networks can also have limiting effects when the obligations to a group are high or the group encourages the individual to participate in activities that negatively influence outcomes. This framework is used to understand the social pressures experienced by a first-generation student.

Methodology and sources of data: The author used multiple data sources to construct Melissa’s life history including interviews, observations and document analysis. She participated in semi-structured interviewers weekly. Individuals important in her life (e.g. her roommate and brother) were also interviewed. Observations at her college campus occurred twice per month. Documents collected include postings on a social network site, assignments and tests, first semester transcripts, and letters from her parents.

Findings: This presentation shares Melissa’s experiences navigating the social pressures at a predominantly white university that attracts students from middle and upper income families. After feeling alienated from her peers during the first month of school, Melissa invoked three strategies: (1) meeting regularly with a mentor; (2) locating a group of racially homogenous friends; and, (3) leaning on her family for support. She had to balance the freedom of living 1,000 miles from her parents with their constant reminders of family expectations. Melissa’s ability to locate individuals on campus and continue relationships with supportive individuals from her past encouraged her success and limited the level of alienation she experienced.

Significance: Selective postsecondary institutions often provide generous financial support to high achieving students and transitional programs to meet academic needs. This paper discusses how social obligations and networks influence how first generation students experience the first semester of college.

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