First-generation student status, signifying those students whose parents do not have college degrees, is a reasonably new area of inquiry in higher education research. Jeff Davis' new book highlights first-generation students as a growing population of students with unique challenges and needs. Davis desires to emphasize the diversity of first-generation student status as an important category on its own, one that may or may not relate to socioeconomic, immigrant, race, or gender categories.
The first three chapters of the book review research about first-generation students. Chapter one provides a call to arms to take first-generation students seriously alongside some recommendations for ways to better account for these students from numerical and policy perspectives. Chapter two reviews learning and campus presence, illustrating that first-generation students may have unique needs that are often not met on college campuses and that more empirical work on first-generation students is needed. Chapter three provides an overview of the struggles of first-generation students.
The heart of this book is in chapter four, a collection of reflective essays, or narratives as Davis refers to them, written by first-generation students from Sonoma State University. These student accounts of their experiences about gaining college access and attempting to persist through their degree are candid and sometimes heart-wrenching. Scholars and practitioners could gain valuable insight from these students' essays. First-generation students may see themselves in these stories. Or, they may at least feel less alone for having read them. Following these narratives, Davis offers his interpretation, relating it to previous literature and practice in chapter five. The final chapter provides recommendations for practice that faculty and student affairs administrators in particular could implement on their campuses.
While these narratives and Davis' reflections upon them are thoughtful and valuable, the book's lack of a research methodology and theoretical grounding with respect to the consideration of intersections between race, class, and gender categories were not as satisfying. The book contains no description of the research design or methodology used in regards to sampling or data analysis, for example. The students who wrote the narrative accounts were primarily a convenience sample of 14 students at Sonoma State University who were involved in a federally funded project during the past decade. This is not problematic in and of itself, but, there are significant variations in the students who were included in the book, representing combinations of the following characteristics: first- and second- generation immigrants to the U.S., students of color, Whites, men, women, nontraditional college students, and traditional aged college students. Although this demonstrates the diversity in first-generation students' experiences, because the book includes only 14 students' essays over a 10-year period, it is difficult to decide how to analyze, and especially interpret, these experiences.
Also missing from the book was a description of how the data/narratives were analyzed. Davis indicates that he does not intend for these narratives to be social science case histories but chapter five of the book does offer some interpretation. If the interpretation is not from a social science perspective, it is difficult to assess the rigor or quality of the findings and subsequent interpretations and policy recommendations. This is potentially detrimental to the very heartfelt, important, and compelling student narratives present in the text. That is, without demonstrating the way in which one arrives at the interpretations from data, the findings are less meaningful. Additionally, and related to data analysis and interpretation, there was no indication of how trustworthiness or validation of the analysis was ensured (Patton, 2001). Although the students did meet with a faculty member about their narratives, it is unclear if the students had the opportunity to voice concerns about how their stories were used or interpreted. This could disfavor the noble intentions of the book, which are undoubtedly to advocate for first-generation students. Additionally, presenting work that appears to be a qualitative approach without rooting it in one or more of the many rigorous techniques and theories in qualitative inquiry can misrepresent qualitative research more generally (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). Finally, with a lack of attention to analysis and validation, there is potential for misrepresenting the experiences of...