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Equity and Intersectionality: Serving First-Generation Students by Creating Inclusive Environments by Susana Muñoz and Gaye DiGregorio

Monday, July 3, 2017

We heard a knock at the door. “Come in!” we exclaimed. James, our first interviewee, walked, opened the door, and peered his head into the conference room. “Hi, Dr. Muñoz and Gaye, am I too early?” James asked. “No, not at all!” James placed his forest green backpack by the door, grabbed a black conference chair and comfortably settled himself at the head of the table ready for the interview questions. “James, the first question that we have for you is, what does it mean to be a first-generation student,” Susana asked. James pondered the question and paused to take a deep breath. “Wow, it means so many things. It’s my story. The good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s about identifying as Asian American but not having legal status in this country. It’s my parents’ immigration story and it’s through my determination that I honor the sacrifices they made for me. I may be the first to go to college in my immediate family, but being first-generation is way more than that.”

James illustrates how his life experiences provide additional complexities and nuance to being a first-generation student, meaning neither parent has obtained a college degree. His ethnic identity, legal status, and parents’ immigration story are assets which lend to the richness and complexities of his college experiences that often fail to be acknowledged by just designating him as first-generation. Yet, research agendas often regard first-generation students as “disadvantaged” or “at-risk” by focusing on “fixing” the student without understanding how college environments and climate contribute to the national graduation gaps of first-generation students and other minoritized student identities compared to their non-first generation peers (Bensimon, 2005).

In order to begin to address these graduation gaps and to focus on the assets rather than the deficits of first-generation students with intersecting identities, campus administrators should consider the saliency of students’ personal stories and life experiences. We posit that college administrators should consider intersectionality in their practice. Intersectionality may consider the way both salient and less salient identities (i.e., legal or language status, race/ethnicity, ability status) influence individual experience. However, beyond the notion of admission and attendance of first-generation college students, these considerations need to be sensitive to the national political climate, the development of strategic interventions targeted specifically for marginalized students, and the implementation of institutional change in the overall culture of higher education. How can campus environments account for equity and inclusion of other salient identities?The current political environment has brought to the forefront the potential budget cuts to college preparation and retention programs (such as TRiOGEAR Up, and EOP), changes to the federal financial aid application form, and immigration enforcement, which have real-life consequences to college degree attainment. For example, the experiences of undocumented first-generation students present higher education with the challenge of addressing an enormous societal issue with degree attainment. Students like James may choose to be open and public about their immigration status, while some students find it difficult to share for various reasons (e.g., social context, stigma, personal trauma, or campus climate). The current threat of deportation has created more anxiety and stress for students as they fear deportation for many of their family members who provide familial support through their college journeys.

Research on first-generation students contends that peer support, academic support, and connectivity to campus institutional agents are imperative factors to college persistence (Holodick-Reed, 2013).  This is also consistent with the research on undocumented youth activists, that suggests that disclosure of legal status can be an empowering and an educational tool for students—one that is usually facilitated through peer solidarity groups (Muñoz, 2015, 2016; Nicholls, 2013; Seif, 2011). Undocumented students experience connectivity to campus when they are able to identify at least one institutional staff member whom they trust and who can help them throughout their academic journeys (Cervantes, Minero, & Brito, 2015). Cultivating inclusive campus environments which allow first-generation students to be their authentic selves while identifying institutional campus agents to provide a safe haven can empower first-generation students such as undocumented students, to achieve their goal of graduating from college.

Moving even further beyond developing strategic interventions specifically for first-generation students with intersecting identities, higher education institutions must confront institutional structures and systems that fuel inequalities (Castro, 2014).  Consequently, this paradigm shift has to go beyond creating programs and services for students who are placed on the margins of the academy, to creating a culture of student success which includes understanding how colleges and universities reproduce systems of oppression through their policies and practices.

One way this supportive culture can be promoted is by emphasizing interdependence (Stephens, Fryberg, Markus, Johnson, & Covarrubias, 2012). By integrating more of an interdependent culture of being part of a community that will support students’ success, students’ receive a message that the institution embraces their intersecting identities (i.e. legal status, first generation, and socio-economic status) and believes in the student’s potential to thrive in college.  The paradigm shift requires higher education institutions to provide intentional support to students that are being harmed and threatened by the current political climate. If colleges and universities are concerned about the campus climate of all first-generation students, then conversations around deportation raids and family separation should be central to discussions around college retention. During these turbulent times, higher education can no longer be a bystander to the political climate and witness the increasing anxiety levels of many first-generation students. We call for courageous leadership to resist and fight for students who have historically been marginalized, and to shape higher education climates to mirror and validate the multiple and intersecting identities of first-generation students.


Bensimon, E. M. (2005). Closing the achievement gap in higher education: An organizational learning perspective. New directions for higher education, 131, 99-111.

Brown McNair, T., Albertine, S., Cooper, M. A., McDonald, N., & Major, T. (2016). Becoming a student ready college: A new culture of leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Castro, E. L. (2014). “Underprepared” and “at-risk”: Disrupting deficit discourses in undergraduate STEM recruitment and retention programming. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 51(4), 407–419.

Cervantes, J. M., Minero, L. P., & Brito, E. (2015). Tales of survival 101 for undocumented Latina/o immigrant university students: Commentary and recommendations from qualitative interviews. Journal of Latina/o Psychology, 3(4), 1–15.

Holodick-Reed, J. A. (2013). First-generation college students’ persistence at a four-year college: A phenomenological case study.  ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Full Text database. (3618382)

Muñoz, S. M. (2015). Identity, social activism, and the pursuit of higher education: The journey of undocumented and unafraid community activists. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

Muñoz, S. M. (2016). Undocumented and unafraid: Understanding the disclosure management process for undocumented college students and graduates. Journal of College Student Development57(6), 715–729.

Nicholls, W. J. (2013). The DREAMers: How the undocumented youth movement transformed the immigration rights debate. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Seif, H. (2011). “Unapologetic and unafraid”: Immigration youth come out of the shadows. In C. A. Flanagan & B. D. Christens (Eds.), Youth civic development: Work at the cutting edgenew directions for child and adolescent development134, 59–75.

Stephens, F. M., Fryberg, S. A., Markus, H. R., Johnson, C. S., & Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen disadvantage: How American universities’ focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1178-1197.

Author Biographies 

Dr. Susana Muñoz is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the School of Education at Colorado State University (CSU). Before accepting a faculty role at CSU, Dr. Muñoz served as a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the Administrative Leadership department. Her scholarly interests center on the experiences of underserved populations in higher education. Specifically, she focuses her research on issues of access, equity, and college persistence for undocumented Latina/o students, while employing perspectives such as Latino critical race theory, Chicana feminist epistemology, and college persistence theory to identify and deconstruct issues of power and inequities as experienced by these populations. Her first book “Identity, Social Activism, and the Pursuit of Higher Education: The Journey Stories of Undocumented and Unafraid Community Activists” (Peter Lang Publishing) highlights the lives of 13 activists who grapple with their legality as a salient identity. Dr. Muñoz received a B.A. in Political Science and International Studies from Iowa State University, an M.S. in Student Affairs and Higher Education from Colorado State University, and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from Iowa State University. She was named by Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine as one of the 25 most influential women in higher education.


Gaye DiGregorio, is the Executive Director of the Collaborative for Student Achievement, which empowers students to create and achieve their personal and educational goals at Colorado State University. She has a B.S. Human Development and Family Studies at Colorado State University, a M. A. in College Student Personnel at Bowling Green University, and is a PhD candidate in Higher Education Leadership at Colorado State University. Her professional expertise in academic advising broadened to overseeing student success programs such as orientation and transition programs, living learning communities, opportunity scholar mentoring programs, and university wide retention programs. Gaye’s background as a first-generation student combined with providing leadership with programs and services for marginalized populations, sparked her research interest with first- generation.