First Generation and low-income (FLI) students are everywhere. That statement is as obvious as it is simple; yet, it is indicative of the diversity of FLI students and their experiences worldwide. More often than not while at QMUL, I have encountered students who are FLI as well as faculty and staff. Despite the prevalence of those that identify as FLI at QMUL, few wanted to discuss their experiences with me for my blog and many explicitly expressed a discomfort with talking about their FLI-ness. At first, the unwillingness and discomfort of my peers caused by the prospect of being interviewed about their FLI identity made sense to me. At the beginning of my time at Amherst, I didn’t care to talk about my FLI identity partly because I didn’t think it was important and mostly because I was too uncomfortable to talk about it.
I understood the discomfort of talking to someone you barely know about your FLI identity of which you may not have fully interrogated (and within the new social context that is higher education) for their random blog. But, with more consideration, the number of FLI students I talked to who were unwilling to talk about their identity was more than unexpected. I realized that I couldn’t have an interview with a FLI student and instead shifted my goal to have an interview about FLI students. In my increasing desperation for an interview, I stumbled upon Dr. Eyal Poleg, a Senior Lecturer in Material History at QMUL.
More relevant to my blog, Dr. Poleg was the Academic Lead for Outward Student Mobility. Before I get into Dr. Poleg’s work, I have to clarify a few terms. First, outward student mobility refers to any type of experiences abroad, including studying, volunteering, or working, that is part of a student’s degree. Second, widening participation, broadly, refers to students who are underrepresented in higher education. Underrepresented backgrounds in England are similar to those in the United States, but the former places particular emphasis on “five student demographics: students from low socio-economic backgrounds; students from low participation neighbourhoods, black and minority ethnic (BME) students; students with disabilities and; students who are care leavers”.
Now, on to Dr. Poleg. During his tenure as the Academic Lead, Dr. Poleg oversaw focus groups regarding outward mobility that included “all groups of diversity” for students and their families. In these focus groups, barriers to outward mobility were examined from a cultural perspective. The attention to the cultural perspective is critical because the decision to study, volunteer, or work abroad for many FLI students, just as the decision to attend an institution of higher education, is often not an individual one and brings in a community of actors (from family to financial aid) that have influence over the decision.
In undertaking a cultural perspective, the study revealed that Muslim female students were the least represented in outward mobility. With the identification of Muslim female students as the least represented, Dr. Poleg stated that a “revelation” was that “economic factors come second” when QMUL students were deciding to participate in outward mobility and the underrepresentation of Muslim female students demonstrates the importance of the cultural over the economic.
The secondary nature of economic factors in outward mobility for widening participation students is indicative of a distinction between students who are first in their family to attend an institution of higher education and students who are not. Within this distinction is a belief that attending a college or university is, according to Dr. Poleg, “enough” for First Generation students in contrast to the information about and experience of opportunities within higher education that go beyond it non-First Generation students are equipped with. Importantly, Dr. Poleg stated that it was necessary to “break the cultural barrier before the economic” in order to increase the representation of widening participation students in outward mobility.
With the importance of cultural barriers in mind, Dr. Poleg noted that an impediment to outward mobility emphasized by the focus groups was a lack of thinking holistically about its diversification. With an understanding of widening participation students and their communities and the cultural and economic complexities of their relationship with outward mobility, Dr. Poleg and his team were able to offer solutions to increase involvement in outward mobility.
One solution was to offer short-term outward mobility opportunities that operate as an opener to longer term experiences with the benefit of future socioeconomic mobility for the student associated with standard outward mobility and study abroad. Ultimately, short-term opportunities enable students to experience outward mobility and its benefits while providing them with the information and experience necessary to make studying, volunteering, or working abroad more accessible for themselves, their families, and their supporting communities. Beyond short-term outward mobility, Dr. Poleg also emphasized the need for stronger support for widening participation students by working intensively with students with anxieties or commuter students by Skyping into their advising meetings at their host institutions. In all, the solutions informed by the focus groups sought to increase access to outward mobility and provide more responsive resources and supports for widening participation students in their experiences.
Although the solutions Dr. Poleg discussed to this point were significant, I was especially impressed with the focus on the culture of outward mobility and solutions to shift it to include widening participation students. In order to bring in the family and community of students, Dr. Poleg has pushed for promotional materials about outward mobility explicitly aimed at families as well as to have interactions with prospective students during QMUL’s Open Day (similar to the Office of Admissions’ Diversity Open Houses at Amherst). QMUL is working to bring in the family and community of students into the decision-making process of study abroad through information and exposure that may not be accessible or easily communicable for FLI students.
Personally, I am incredibly grateful to have a supportive family and community throughout my study abroad experience, but I am more than aware of their lack of information about my process since its beginning. Of course, I am at fault for their lack of information, but my discussion with Dr. Poleg raised an important question for me regarding the responsibility of the dissemination of information about study abroad.
Is it the responsibility of institutions like Amherst or QMUL to equip students, their family, and their community with the information to make a well-informed decision about participation in study abroad with a cultural and economic competency that is reflective and inclusive of its diverse body of students? From my discussion with Dr. Poleg and my own experience of study abroad, the question of how to support FLI students and other students of underrepresented backgrounds in higher education comes to the fore. Study abroad or outward mobility is a particular experience of higher education that seems to retain a culture of classism and elitism that precludes students of underrepresented backgrounds and is illustrative of the necessary distinction between statistics of diversity and the lived experiences of the students that comprise those statistics of diversity. Study abroad is a part of the tension between the independent development of support networks for FLI and other underrepresented students and institutional resources and supports that already exist. Thus, a broader question of how much institutions of higher education have to adapt to students from underrepresented backgrounds and how much students from underrepresented backgrounds have to adapt to their institutions becomes a part of the very decision to study abroad for FLI students and others.
The attention to the culture of outward mobility or study abroad as a microcosm of classism and elitism at institutions of higher education highlights its importance as a factor to understanding the state of educational equality at a particular institution. If there is a commitment to diversifying the student body as well as improving access to the opportunities within a college or university, there is a greater commitment to educational equality beyond simply admitting students of underrepresented backgrounds. Thus, studying abroad and its diversification needs to be viewed as an investment for students as well as their institution.