‘If you want to be a lawyer or a doctor, or even a lobsterman — find someone who went through very similar experiences as you’
I spoke to Misty Start, a fellow first-gen and a graduate student at Regis College, who’s researching the role of mentors in the development of post-secondary aspirations of rural first-gen students and how those relationships shape the world views of young people. Like me, Misty gives a lot of credit to the mentors who’ve helped her navigate through life since middle school. Her focus on rural students stems from her own background growing up in rural Maine and attending college in New Hampshire. We talked about learning to self-advocate and why it’s important to pay it forward.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ZO: Does mentorship play a greater role for first-generation students than it does for more traditional students?
MS: I think that mentorship is valuable for anyone. It’s valuable to have someone who is in their corner advocating for them, and supporting them, regardless of what they achieve. I think sometimes we get into mentoring relationships where the mentee thinks that their value is wrapped up in what they can achieve.
But yeah, there’s pretty significant value for first-gen students. I’ve found that personally but it also aligns with my research. Mentors not only helped raise self-confidence and self-efficacy, but mentors also connect students to college and career pathways that the first-generation students never even knew existed or never thought would be possible for them. And so I think those are two things that mentors bring to the first generation experience that is necessary. Because for many first-generation students, they don’t even know what their options are or that they can attain them.
ZO: I know you’re still in the process of the research, but are there any common threads throughout the people you’re speaking to?
MS: Absolutely. Some of the things that we know when we’re thinking about rural education are that there are pretty significant obstacles when providing equitable education in rural communities. The folks in my study will be first-gen but also from rural communities. Some of those challenges that we see are that their rural schools generally cost more money to fund but they receive a smaller percentage of state and Title I funding than urban districts. Another thing that we that our data tells us is that rural schools are really good about getting their students to graduate. Rural students actually graduate at a higher percentage than their non-rural peers, but they don’t go to college at the same level. Obviously, there are pretty significant economic and social mobility costs with that.
There are very high numbers of first-gen students in rural communities. First-gen students are not being sufficiently prepared for college given these roadblocks. If you’re in a rural area, there are limited post-secondary opportunities, limited colleges even close to you and most of the jobs in your areas require low or middle skill. And then rural areas are also experiencing a huge migration. So when we do have first-generation students leaving to go to college, they never come back, which means there are no role models for those new students coming through. That impacts the lack of college knowledge.
ZO: There are first-gen students who feel less comfortable self-advocating and actively looking for mentors. What advice would you give them about putting themselves out there in that way?
MS: I would advise them to seek out mentors mentorship with individuals who have similar aspirations to their own, but also are coming from a similar context. If you want to be a lawyer or a doctor, or even a lobsterman — find someone who went through very similar experiences as you. Let’s say you’re low income and first-gen, and you have a mentor who isn’t. It’s not that they can’t provide you with support but I think there might be a disconnect with them truly understanding the challenges that you experience.
I grew up in a rural area, I’m first-gen, I’m low income. And now that I’m in higher ed, I’m learning all of these things that I wish I knew when I was younger. I can’t think of any world where if a low income, first-generation student reached out to me for support, that I would say no. And so I, even though I did have great mentors growing up, I wish I had just known to reach out because people want to help you.
📚 Good reads:
- “Reopening America’s schools is way harder than it should be,” by Sarah Darville for Chalkbeat and The New York Times Sunday Review
- “A Teenager Didn’t Do Her Online Schoolwork. So a Judge Sent Her to Juvenile Detention,” by Jodi Cohen for ProPublica
- “At college health centers, students battle misdiagnoses and inaccessible care,” by Jenn Abelson, Nicole Dungca, Meryl Kornfield and Andrew Ba Tran for The Washington Post