Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Justice-Learning: Exploring the Efficacy with Low-Income, First-Generation College Students

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Justice-Learning: Exploring the Efficacy with Low-Income, First-Generation College Students

Article excerpt

Educators often grapple with the concept of "difference" and conditions that lead to power and privilege in contemporary society. To reach an understanding that difference is socially constructed and privilege and oppression are intimately connected to this cultural process is to challenge some foundational, if often unacknowledged, aspects of modern life. One related, and often painful, real-world complexity that begs for critical review is the measurable gap between college attendance and graduation rates for white, middle class, traditional-aged students and these same rates for low-income, traditional-aged students, particularly those of color (Carey, 2005; Spenner, Buchmann, & Landerman, 2005; Teagle Foundation, 2006).

Another challenge facing every institution of higher learning is to find effective ways to help students become responsible citizens. A national culture emphasizing individualism and materialism, coupled with increasing pressures to prepare professionals for a technocratic world, tends to diminish a prevailing sense of social responsibility. Yet, the future of democracy rests on an informed and socially engaged citizenry. Recognizing a perceived need for transformative methods that inspire students to work for the "common good" and help de-privilege institutions of higher learning, this study explores the efficacy of a "justice-learning" pedagogy designed to enhance academic and civic engagement for first-generation female college students from low-income, urban neighborhoods using a uniquely situated community-based approach.

The researchers conducting this study examined a semester-long, first-year seminar program, "Leadership for Social Justice," held at an urban satellite campus enrolling only first-generation college students from low-income urban areas. This course combined a social justice-oriented curriculum with service-learning to simultaneously confront and destabilize-essentially reframe-students' initial views of privilege, power, and difference. The findings suggest that this combined pedagogy afforded students opportunities to openly examine unacknowledged binaries guiding much of their day-to-day thinking as well as to reflectively and experientially explore how these same binaries are open to contestation and reconstruction. This critical process, in turn, enabled students to re-vision their own agency within the campus and wider communities because they had the opportunity to redefine their own relationships to privilege, power, and difference.

Literature Review

Higher education continually attempts to identify effective means for engaging and retaining traditionally marginalized populations, particularly first-generation college students of color from low-income backgrounds. Family income appears to influence students' likelihood of entering and completing college, despite academic ability or achievement (Akerheilm, Berger, Hooker, & Wise, 1998; Ottinger, 1991; Thayer, 2000; Tinto, 2007). Additionally, first-generation college students, coming from families of origin where neither parent has earned a bachelor's degree, are also at greater risk for educational attainment beyond high school. Confirming that first-generation students are less likely to persist in college than their non-first generation peers, Thayer explains:

   The transition to the college campus can be
   particularly difficult for first generation students ... Entering
   the university means not only
   that they must leave home for an unfamiliar
   academic setting, but that they must also enter
   an alien physical and social environment that
   they, their family, and their peers have never
   experienced. They are faced with leaving a certain
   world in which they fit for an uncertain
   world where they already know they do not fit.
   In fact, first generation students may find
   themselves "on the margin" of two cultures
   and must often renegotiate relationships at college
   and at home to manage the tension
   between the two. … 
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