Earlier this year, Extension Youth Development professionals from Minnesota and 11 other North Central states began to explore how to better invite and retain “first-generation 4-Hers.” This is especially important in light of racially-motivated violent events such as those that occurred within the past week in North Minneapolis. They are symptoms of a racial pathology that will continue to plague our country, as well as our youth programs, if we don’t do anything about it, and if we don’t talk about it.
A “first generation 4-H’er” initiative is one way that Minnesota 4-H has begun to confront our own and others’ implicit biases in order to strengthen our organization’s diversity and equity. We integrated the definition of the term itself with the actions that we will take.
By “first-generation 4-H’ers,” we mean youth and families not previously engaged in 4-H and whom we will engage with:
- a purposeful goal to reflect the community within the 4-H program and
- an understanding that in many cases this will require specific and intentional work to engage communities and populations historically shut out and left behind.
Since the notion of a first-generation experience isn’t unique to 4-H, I wondered how we could learn from research conducted on the experience of first-generation college students -- those whose parents do not have a college degree. I found some interesting and helpful correlations.
Research shows that first-generation college students have lower grades and graduation rates than continuing-generation students (those with at least one parent with a college degree), whose families have the experience to help them navigate the often unspoken rules and expectations of college life and systems.
Similarly, in 4-H -- a large and sometimes complicated system with its own unspoken rules and expectations -- continuing-generation 4-H’ers generally have an easier time finding a way to fit into the program or influencing it to fit their needs. First-generation college students experience such challenges as culture shock, financial difficulties, difficulty finding resources, and feelings of frustration and a lack of identity. It’s not surprising that first-generation college students are more likely to drop out of college than continuing-generation students. We find the same to be true for our first-generation 4-Hers, who experience similar challenges.
A study conducted by Stanford and Northwestern universities found that talking about class differences, rather than ignoring them, helps first-generation students advance in college. The results showed that by providing a one-hour “difference-education” opportunity to talk about the difference in experience for students of varying income levels, they were able to eliminate the social-class achievement gap between first-generation and continuing-generation college students. These results validate for me how important it is to talk about those things that are most difficult to talk about.
How do you think a similar discussion about differences in experience could make an impact on first-generation families in your program? How could an examination of our own implicit biases make an impact on our work? How does a person’s race influence their first-generation experience? What other strategies do you think would help your own youth program better welcome new participants?
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