Breaking the barriers for first in family uni students

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“More than 50% of Australian tertiary education students are the first in their family to go to university and that number is increasing,” Dr O’ Shea, from University of Wollongong’s School of Education, said.

This trend, and how universities can help first in family student through their higher education was the focus of a recent national forum, ‘Breaking the Barriers: Forum on First in Family Students in Higher Education’. It involved representatives from 20 universities across Australia and is free and open to the public.

“First in family students, which includes those attending university immediately after school and later in life, often have additional pressures to contend with in their higher education journey. These can include reassuring family members they have made the right choice, being a role model for others in the family and community and not having someone close to them whom they can approach for advice or support.”

Dr O’ Shea and her team conducted hundreds of interviews and surveys as part of the Office of Learning and Teaching project. They hope the results will help tertiary institutions develop strategies to better support these students.

“There are a number of strategies that we recommend that both students and educational practitioners can implement to assist this cohort in their transition to university and better support their educational success,” Dr O’Shea said.

“For example, we need to engage more directly with the families of these students. This can include creating meaningful opportunities for children, parents, siblings and significant others to come on-campus, as well as encouraging students to include their family members in their study.

Mitchell Fenner did not intend on going to university when he graduated from high school in Tamworth in 2012. No one in his family had ever attended university. But after a gap year, Mitchell decided to embark on a double degree in Engineering and Science at UOW.

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He said while there has been hurdles to overcome (moving 500km from home, missing family events and tragedies and second guessing his identity), he does not regret his decision.

“I want to work in any career that I choose, not for the money, a little for the glory, but all for the enjoyment and furthering myself and always pushing my boundaries further to become the best that I can, and always be proud of what I have done.” 

One day Mitchel hopes to have his own engineering firm that is known for being one step ahead of the field by implementing cutting edge materials and chemical advancements for alternative energy production.

“From the moment I told my parents I had decided to go to university, I noticed my father treating me a little differently. I like to believe it is him being happy to see me become the most I can be, and in a way, that I will be able to do what he wasn’t able to, as we are very much alike,” he said.

The national forum included a panel discussion featuring first in family students (including Mitchell Fenner). A new website,, which aims to provide advice and support for education providers as well as students, will be launched also.

(Source: University of Wollongong)

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Date Created: February 24, 2015 Date Modified: March 2, 2015