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March 15, 2012

Q&A: Stanford's Hazel Markus on how college culture may affect first-generation students

By Brooke Donald

Stanford psychologist Hazel Rose Markus (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

Heading off to college is a big adjustment for most students.

But new research suggests that for those who are the first in their families to attend a university, it may be even harder to do well on a campus that emphasizes carving your own path rather than being part of a larger community.

Stanford psychologist Hazel Rose Markus, one of the authors of the study examining the cultural mismatch that may undermine academic achievement, discusses the findings with the Stanford News Service.

What is the independent campus culture?

 We found by conducting a survey of college administrators that the rules of the game at most universities emphasize independence – being exceptional, standing out, expressing yourself, learning to lead.


How does that affect first-generation students compared with students whose parents have attended college, so-called continuing-generation students?

While no two students are alike, first-generation students from working-class communities are likely to have had less experience with these expectations than middle-class and upper-middle-class students. Until they learn the rules of the game, they are often at a significant disadvantage – earning lower grades, dropping out more, forming few relationships with peers and professors, and participating in few extracurricular activities.


So this "cultural mismatch" is created?

Yes. The sharply individualistic focus of most colleges – it's all about me and my ideas, choices, goals and plans – can be a culture shock for many first-generation students. Many first-generation students have been socialized with rules emphasizing interdependence – an emphasis on fitting in, knowing one's place in the hierarchy, working together with those they know, giving back to their families and communities. The idea that it's not all about me is more common in communities with limited financial resources and no economic safety net.


How does that mismatch affect achievement?

Continuing-generation students expect that people should focus on them, and they know how to get help and attention. First-generation students are often very self-sufficient and hardworking but they do not expect or seek the guidance or support they could use. Rather than being given the opportunity to do whatever they want, they would often like to know what steps to take to succeed.


Is there anything that can be done?

Universities can tweak their cultures so they include a focus on interdependence as well as independence. They can consider the messages they send about university goals. They can reflect on how they teach and evaluate students to determine if they are giving advantages to continuing-generation students at the expense of first-generation students. As first-generation students enter the university, they may initially benefit more from high-quality information and instruction about what to do and how to succeed than they will from extensive choice and opportunities to chart their own course.


Is Stanford doing anything to help first-generation students?

First-generation and/or low-income students represent about 24 percent of undergraduates at Stanford. Stanford is putting together a series of events to support first-generation students.


About the study

The research, which includes survey data and laboratory studies, is currently online and will appear in the next issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP), a publication of the American Psychological Association.

The co-authors are Stanford alumnae Nicole Stephens, an assistant professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Stephanie Fryberg, an associate professor at the University of Arizona; Camille Johnson, an assistant professor at the School of Business at San Jose State University and former postdoc at the Stanford Graduate School of Business; and Rebecca Covarrubias, a graduate student at the University of Arizona.



Hazel Rose Markus, Psychology: (650) 723-4404,

Brooke Donald, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,

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