Academic journal article Journal of College Counseling

First-Generation Undergraduate Students' Social Support, Depression, and Life Satisfaction

Academic journal article Journal of College Counseling

First-Generation Undergraduate Students' Social Support, Depression, and Life Satisfaction

Article excerpt

First-generation undergraduate students face challenging cross-socioeconomic cultural transitions into college life. The authors compared first- and non-first-generation undergraduate students' social support, posttraumatic stress, depression symptoms, and life satisfaction. First-generation participants reported less social support from family and friends, more single-event traumatic stress, less life satisfaction, and marginally more depression symptomatology than non-first-generation participants, but significant generation-gender interactions showed first-generation women doing worse and first-generation men doing better than others.

Keywords: first-generation student, social support, life satisfaction


First-generation undergraduate students face greater challenges than do undergraduate students from college-educated families (Martinez, Sher, Krull, & Wood, 2009; Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004). Compared with the latter, first-generation undergraduate students have lower academic ambitions (Terenzini, Springer, Yaeger, Pascarella, & Nora, 1996). There is evidence that they are at a disadvantage in terms of family support, level of financial assistance, knowledge about higher education, academic preparation, and educational expectations (Pascarella et al., 2004). Because they more often come from lower socioeconomic status (SES) families or from racial and ethnic minority cultures (primarily Hispanic or African American), first-generation undergraduates may be subjected to stressors associated with those social positions, such as low-income neighborhood violence (Lott, 2003) and racial and ethnic discrimination (Pieterse, Carter, Evans, & Walter, 2010). High school students with less educated parents perceive more stress, which relates to more disengagement coping, less engagement coping, and less optimism, compared with students with more educated parents (Finkelstein, Kubzansky, Capitman, & Goodman, 2007).

In addition to these unique challenges, first-generation students also face challenges typical of non-first-generation students (those having at least one parent with a bachelor's degree), including adjusting to a college environment, possibly a different living situation, and general academic anxieties such as course selection and career choices (Terenzini et al., 1996). Academic stress and negative emotional reactions are both common and related (Misra, McKean, West, & Russo, 2000), but typical stressors may be more severe for first-generation students. Pascarella et al. (2004) found that these students had more difficulty in 2nd-year science reasoning, critical thinking, and overall academic success.

Both kinds of challenges may influence first-generation undergraduate students' adaptation and success in college. Timely counseling services appropriate for the stresses faced by these students might reduce attrition and improve student performance. The present study is a preliminary effort to compare stress reactions, use of social support, and two aspects of psychological well-being in first- and non-first-generation students. Previous studies have examined academic stressors, social support, and depression in this population, but traumatic stress reactions and life satisfaction are less often evaluated, and we found no studies combining these measures or comparing the relative strengths of their intercorrelations in first-generation and non-first-generation students. Academic reasons for student attrition have received more attention than have nonacademic stressors. Both depression and reduced life satisfaction might contribute to attrition, and if so, typical contributing factors would be important for counselors to appraise in their initial assessments.

Academic Acculturative Stress

First-generation students confront not only the typical anxieties, frustrations, and novelty of college but also stressors from social and cultural transitions (Terenzini et al. …

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