Asking systemic – what changes would First-generation students make to their support network?

Britta Wittner, Luisa Barthauer, Simone Kauffeld


Students who are the first in their family to pursue a university degree (First-Generation Students; FGS) are still underrepresented at universities. Since Social Support and Social Capital both depend on the socio-economic background of a person, FGS' lack of support is often brought up by practitioners and researchers alike. Empirical results support this concern. Results from later career stages show that so-called developmental networks are an important antecedent for career success, career satisfaction and performance. The need for certain characteristics in the developmental network is context sensitive. While trying to succeed in their current job, individuals need different networks than individuals trying to find a new employment. On the flip-side, needing a specific kind of support but not being able to receive it has a negative effect on career relevant factors. Most studies focus on the actual networks and the contexts they are useful in and neglect the reverse effect (i.e.,: alters the ego would have wished for). We approached this by asking students in retrospect how they would have used their network differently and whether they would want to add new alters or support forms to their networks to make it an ideal support network. For our study we collected N=40 (n=25 FGS) interviews with bachelor students in three steps. First, participants filled out an online survey (1) with demographic variables and psychometrical scales (such social support scales, satisfaction with life). During the interview we were following a problem-centred interview approach during the first part (2) and then asked for their support networks during the beginning of their bachelors’ degree and (3) whether they would have wished for additional alters to make their network ideal (3). For visualisation of the networks we used VennMaker. Interviews were coded using content analysis and network maps were analysed with qualitative structural analysis (QSA). FGS and NFGS alike recognise, that they could have involved their current network for support more often, e.g. financially or for more emotional support. Most NFGS did not report wishes to add new alters to their ideal networks. FGS often made additions to their ideal networks and wished for three things: an emotionally close companion, a motivator and a mentoring relationship. In their ideal networks, companions are very multiplex alters. They should be close friends, providing emotional support as well as studying the same major. Some interviewees wished that close friends from school would study the same subject, so they could have taken them along to university. Motivators do not necessarily have to have the same emotional bond but should be highly successful fellow students that encourage the ego to prioritise studying for university. Mentors are perceived as helpful independent from their background – they could either come from academia, like professors or from a working environment, to provide the FGS with important contacts and knowledge. Adding to research on FGS actual support networks, this study helps us provide support networks most helpful for FGS.

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