Date of Award

5-6-2009

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Bennett A. Rafoth, Ed.D.

Second Advisor

Michael M. Williamson, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Jean Nienkamp, Ph.D.

Abstract

This study examines the lives of first-generation college students from rural, working-class families in Southeast Georgia. Through their stories, readers understand first-generation students’ passage into higher education, both how they have prepared and the challenges they face once they enroll. Research questions focus on the role learning plays in students’ lives; the impact attending college has on their professions or jobs; the advantages and/or disadvantages of attending college; and how teachers might help more first-generation students succeed. Part of the literature reviews the history of southern culture, including mores and traditions, especially as they relate to education. The study itself is qualitative, a combination of interviews and field observations. To show how changes in the South over the past thirty years have impacted first-generation students, the participants range in age from 22 to 54. Analysis of the interviews and participant observations reveal three key findings about first-generation students’ experiences: First, attitudes toward education have changed significantly in recent years. Education has grown from something that people from rural communities did to something that they value, so today more first-generation students are encouraged to work hard and do well in school so that they can go to college. Second, once first-generation students enter college, they face unique challenges even though they are academically prepared. Learning how to navigate within the higher education system is critical to their success. Third, even though parents act as sponsors before students enter the university, they often contribute to students’ uncertainty when students begin to question cultural beliefs and values. For many first-generation students, education is a means of moving out of the working class. In the process, however, first-generation students often find themselves in limbo between what they have always known and what they believe they can become. The study’s participants are still in transition, pursuing educations that may help them in their quest for middle class and all that the class may signify. Although none have graduated, they continue to make progress or plan to return. Understanding their lives and their needs will help those who teach first-generation students from working-class families help them succeed.

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