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Celebrating ‘Firsts’

Undergraduate research focuses on first-generation students

It’s easy to meet a first-generation student on the Bridgewater State University campus. Half of the student body is comprised of individuals who represent the first in their immediate family to attend college.

But it can be challenging for these pioneering students to take full advantage of their education. That’s where a psychology professor and her undergraduate research mentees hope to make a difference.

A Personal Connection

Dr. Ashley Hansen-Brown knows what it is like to not have family members to turn to for school advice because she, too, was a first-generation student.

“You don’t necessarily know to ask for things and be involved in things,” the assistant professor said.

Now, Hansen-Brown is working with undergraduates to understand how universities can better support first-gens.

The research also enrichens students’ BSU education.

“Knowing these opportunities exist is really important,” she said. “In any major, you can conduct research and get involved.”

Examining Motivation

Jessica Lynch, ’22, of Pembroke, aims to understand why first-generation students pursue higher education.

“Finding out what motivates them and how those motivations change would ideally help professors and universities and colleges tailor programs to their specific needs,” Jessica said.

Jessica first conducted an online survey of students across the country that was supported by BSU’s Adrian Tinsley Program.

During the fall semester, she is measuring motivation among students in an orientation psychology course. 

“I feel like it’s such a different experience than sitting in class,” said Jessica, who hopes to continue researching in graduate school as she studies to become a school counselor.

Understanding the Role of Professors

First-generation students and their peers appreciate when professors share personal stories, according to research by Collin Lavigne, Shaelyn Donovan, Sean Sullivan and Josh DeLuca.

Participants reacted positively when presented with hypothetical vignettes about faculty who invite students to talk with them about issues. Students similarly appreciated professors who shared their struggles in college and disclosed being a first-generation student.

Their work builds on a summer project by Alexa Brown and Katelyn Ward.

“This is a good opportunity to learn and immerse myself into something that’s unfamiliar,” said Collin, a senior from Acushnet.

Shaelyn, a junior from Charlton, said research broadens her education.

“We all know how to listen and take notes,” she said. “Now, when we’re learning research, we’re doing the work ourselves.”

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