Research Project Explores COVID-19’s Effects on First-Generation Students and their Families

June 27, 2022

Population Studies and Training Center (PSTC) anthropologists Kate Mason and Andrea Flores, in collaboration with anthropologist Sarah Willen at the University of Connecticut, are investigating the effects of the pandemic on first-generation college students and their parents. Leveraging data collection methods related to Mason’s and Willen’s ongoing work on the Pandemic Journaling Project (PJP)—an online platform created in 2020 for people across the country to submit journal entries about their day-to-day experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic—the researchers will explore how first-generation students’ and families’ priorities changed due to the financial, social, and health pressures created by the pandemic.

Study participants will answer monthly journaling prompts, participate in two interviews with the research team, and record two conversations with each other. When combined with existing PJP data, these additional data will provide insights into participant experiences over a period of four years, from May 2020 to June 2024. “This project was partially provoked by previous evidence gathered through the PJP that indicated first-generation college students and their families were affected by educational consequences of the pandemic, such as campus closures, more than others,” says Mason. “Therefore, resulting publications of this study will focus on the social meaning of education and on narratives of students and parents struggling to reimagine their dreams in the face of a global crisis.”

This study will also address broader potential effects that include the impact on educational support programming at universities, the impact on social services for vulnerable families, the direct impact on participants in the study, the impact on the historical record, and the educational benefits for student researchers. The findings will provide educators and support staff with critical knowledge about some of their most vulnerable students, promote understanding of how changes in familial care structures can provide helpful context for social services that support low-income families and families of color, and may have direct, positive impact on the mental health of participants, according to research suggesting expressive writing’s impact on emotional wellbeing and testimonials received from PJP participants.

Additionally, the narratives collected will contribute to the construction of a rich archive depicting life during the pandemic, which will enable future historians to better understand the experiences of vulnerable populations and provide immediate undergraduate educational benefits for the research assistants, who will gain considerable training and skills through their participation in this study. Ultimately, researchers will share what they learn from this study so institutions and staff on college campuses may better recognize and anticipate the needs of first-generation college students and their families and consequently respond in meaningful and supportive ways.