New Group Aims to Help First-Generation Students Navigate Grad School and Beyond


For students who come from families where no precedent has been set for higher education, the San José State University School of Information’s newest student group supports them with their graduate school and professional experiences.

The idea for the First Generation Students Group was sparked when Dr. Anthony Bernier interviewed a student from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law about his experiences forming a similar group there. Bernier saw the need at the iSchool for a group that supported graduate students who “come from backgrounds that were not previously represented in the professions, where families may not be familiar with the world of professions and professionals.”

Filling a Missing Gap

JonLuc Christensen responded to Bernier’s call for student assistants in spring 2017 when he volunteered to help organize the First Generation Students Group’s first meeting under the condition that he would not be able to make a long-term commitment due to a full-time course work and other student organization obligations.

“However, the event was such a success that I decided to power through and formed the first Executive Council. The major appeal was that I thought it filled a missing gap in the educational and professional development of many students. I wanted to get involved to hopefully start to fill that gap,” he said.

Although Christensen’s parents have higher education degrees, he could relate to the first-generation student experience of being “almost entirely” self-sufficient and having to manage everything on his own with little guidance or direction.

“It was very difficult, and I made a lot of mistakes along the way. It wasn’t until my two years that I started getting involved with honor societies, really talking with advisers, and working with faculty mentors. Once I started doing that, many opportunities opened for me,” he explained.

Digging Deeper 

At the First Generation Students Group’s inaugural online meeting in fall 2017, 41 students participated. Since then, the group was awarded a Diversity Research grant from the American Library Association to interview members about their experiences as first-generation students.

The group is disseminating the patterns found not only at SJSU but also among the increasing number of LIS programs offering online master’s-level instruction and degrees.

A literature review and analysis were presented during a panel discussion at ALA’s 2019 Midwinter Meeting and will be discussed at the Association for Library and Information Science Education conference in fall 2020. Bernier will also publish a brief article in a future issue of American Libraries magazine and share his research with iSchool faculty members during a T3 (Teaching, Tips and Techniques) workshop.

Getting Involved, Making Connections

Nicki Viso was looking for more ways to get involved at school when she saw the email regarding the study from Bernier. She noticed the Executive Council didn’t have a secretary and felt her talents would serve well in the position. She’s working on her Master of Library and Information Science degree, which is her second after counseling and human resource development.

“My dad graduated from college, but he passed away before I finished high school, so I feel like I missed out on learning about college and how to navigate a campus. I didn’t think to ask him about it when I was younger,” she said.

Viso’s mother didn’t attend college, so she pushed her and her siblings toward higher education thinking it would help them with careers and professional opportunities. She’s considering a few options for her career: information architecture, records management, or some hybrid of college student develop and LIS.

“The First Generation Students Group has connected me with two individuals who are in the field of records management right now. I felt a little lost at first – who do I reach out to? How do I reach out to them? What do I say? But because of FGSG, I feel like I have some context rather than just ‘cold calling,’” she said.

Solidifying a Career Direction

A desire to get involved, network and share her own experiences as a first-generation student is what prompted Mercedes Rutherford-Patten, communications director for the group, to respond to the call for survey volunteers for the study. She is the first and only person in her immediate family to earn a bachelor’s degree and pursue a master’s degree.

“I was born and raised in Newton, IA, which is a beautiful small town known for the founding of the Maytag Corporation (appliances) in 1893. Up until the devastating 2007 closure of the two plants in Newton, Maytag kept my community–my family (my dad worked there for decades), friends, neighbors, acquaintances–thriving.

“I can’t emphasize enough how Maytag’s closure significantly contributed to who I am today and why I value my education so much; it’s an important part of my story as a FGS,” she said.

Rutherford-Patten acknowledges her parents “did the best they could” but left many decisions to her as a young adult that she wasn’t prepared for.  

“After obtaining my BA, I was in career limbo for years as I couldn’t clearly pinpoint a career pathway during undergrad, particularly one that I felt compelled to pursue and was passionate about. I think my status as FGS contributed to my lack of direction and possibly motivation for solidifying a career direction,” she said.

After a few years, she set her sights on librarianship and first received an Associate’s degree in Library Information and Technology. An internship during that program led to her current job at the Robert E. Kennedy Library, California Polytechnic, San Luis Obispo, where she provides support for reference and instruction. Rutherford-Patten’s career goal, and why she decided to attend SJSU for graduate school, is to continue working in an academic library teaching research skills.

“The FGS group is helping me navigate the graduate school experience by providing me a community with individuals who share my experience of being a first-generation student and who understand the anxieties that go along with that status. One of my biggest challenges is being confident in myself and trusting myself and my abilities.

“This group reminds me that I am not alone in my struggle and that I can overcome these challenges. With annual meetings and incredibly relevant and useful blog posts, I am comforted knowing I have a community where I can lean on many shoulders, so to speak, and receive supportive feedback and guidance,” she said.  

Joining the Group

The recording of the First Generation Students Group’s April 24 meeting can be found on the Events page of the group’s website.  All iSchool students who identify as first-generation master’s degree program students are encouraged to join the membership list on the website, and follow the group on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.