Qualitative Research and Identity as a First Generation Student


Published: January 27, 2021 by Christina Advento

Brene Brown, a researcher noted for her work on shame and vulnerability, writes that she “fell in love with the richness and depth of qualitative research” and “couldn’t resist the idea of research as storycatching.” As a teacher of high school English and Psychology, and a current MLIS student, I also love research and the power of a story. I was fortunate enough to be chosen by Anthony Bernier to work on his research project, “Recasting First Generation Experience for LIS Success,” but I never expected to find research that spoke to me so wholeheartedly. 

First of all, I was a first generation student myself, as my parents did not graduate from college.  As a young woman in 1987, I found myself on one hand, so excited to be immersed in academic life in the Honors Program at a liberal arts college in Austin, Texas. On the other hand, I was under confident in so many aspects of college life, including how to network and promote myself for opportunities, and importantly, how to choose a career.  This was further compounded four years later at the University of Michigan, where I studied English Language and Literature in a competitive environment with peers from Brown and Princeton.  I felt lost, and didn’t have family or friends to help me through the experience.  Although the Department of Education used the term “first generation student” in 1965, I had never heard of such a group, did not find others like me, and never considered this characteristic as part of my identity. 

Fast forward twenty-five years later, and I was immersed in the project of listening to the stories of 50 FG students, students who were my peers in the MLIS graduate program at SJSU.  As I read and coded the interview transcripts about their experiences in the program, I felt the awesome job of analyzing their feelings about their academic skills, their ability to build social capital, how they worked with their peers, their leadership strengths.  First generation students have many skills, such as real-life experience and perspective, ingenuity and a strong work ethic.  But because they are on the outside of the world of higher education, the one throughline that showed up in most of the interviews was a lack of self-confidence.  In how they rated themselves (not many 5s, the highest rating on the scale), in how they discussed their academic skills (often describing strategies as flaws), and in how they compared themselves to their peers (older students being intimidated by their younger peers, younger students feeling less strong than older students), I felt a deep connection to my own story.  

Dr. Bernier’s research goal is to focus on how graduate programs and their faculty can understand the unique strengths and needs of their FG graduate students. The project is in its second iteration, most recently through a grant from ALISE (The Association for Library and Information Science Education), and he is aiming for a national project to continue the work. Through its ability to describe complex issues of a population, qualitative research has the potential to improve higher education experiences for first generation students.  But it also allowed me to connect with the stories of research, and learn more about myself. 


Brown, B. (2021). The Research. Brene Brown. https://brenebrown.com/the-research/


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