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Dissertation Research

First-Gen Families: How First Generation College Students Experience Family Relationships

My dissertation, completed in fulfillment of my PhD in sociology from The Ohio State University, used longitudinal in-depth interviews with approximately 80 students to investigate their family relationships. Please reach out to me directly if you'd like a full copy of my dissertation.


How might we better understand how first-generation college students experience their changing relationships with their parents in order to improve their experiences and outcomes of university?

To investigate this question, I investigated the parent-child relationship at three pivotal junctures:

  1. After the first year of college

  2. During the COVID-19 pandemic

  3. As students are considering the transition from college to career.

This research is used to inform the Office of Student Life in how to best support first-gen students.


The data for my dissertation were collected as part of the Higher Education Innovation Project (HEIP) at Ohio State, a longitudinal study of longitudinal interviews and an initial survey. HEIP members have included graduate students, undergraduate research assistants, and a faculty member and staff member as co-PIs. 


My Role in HEIP:

  • Collaborated with HEIP members on survey, interview guide, and IRB approval forms

  • Assisted in participant recruitment

  • Conducted in-depth interviews with students each year

  • Assisted in transcription

  • Trained two undergraduate research assistants in how to conduct interviews and code data

NOTE: Although data collection was collaborative, all coding, analysis, and writing for my dissertation was executed entirely by me.

Library Bookshelves

Chapter 1

First-Generation College Students and the Changing Relationship with Parents Over the First Year of College

As a first-generation college student with complicated family relationships myself, I've always been interested in how other first-gens negotiate their family relationships as they progress through college. In Chapter 1 of my dissertation, I used all of the interviews with both first-generation (n=52) and continuing-generation students (n=10) from Wave 1 of HEIP in which participants discuss their parent-child relationships. My research questions were:

  1. How do first-gen students describe their relationships with their parents changing over the first year of college?

  2. What factors do students see as driving these changes?

  3. How do they perceive these changes?


I used a “flexible coding” approach, which involves reading and rereading transcripts line by line, making connections across the data, and eventually narrowing down to specific codes and themes (Deterding and Waters 2018). First-gens' experiences of their relationship changes with their parents fell into four overarching, non-mutually exclusive narratives: positive change, negative change, no change, and neutral change.

Positive Change (n=20)

Students who describe the changed relationships as positive are not necessarily closer with their parents than they were before college, but feel the relationship has evolved in constructive ways.


Common themes:

(1) appreciation for the way their parents raised them and/or sacrifices their parents have made for their education

(2) a newfound independence that wouldn’t have been possible without their college education and experiences 

(3) parents’ support of their decisions, both academic and non-academic

Positive Change (n=20)


"You could tell when people's parents don't raise them right. They do stuff that I'm like, ‘I would never, ever do that.’ I dunno. It also makes me, it makes me really appreciate my family. I just have a very strong foundation to lean back on honestly. Because when you're up here and you haven't talked to anybody in a couple weeks, you kind of might actually get a little sad. And so then I could just call my mom and be like, ‘Yo, I'm going to come home this weekend,’ and she will send me a ticket and be like, ‘Here.’"

-Shaina (Black woman, first-gen)

No Change (n=11)

Some students indicated that their relationships with their parents have not changed over the course of the first year of college. Students who fall in the “no change” category range from having very close to very distant relationships with their parents.

Common themes:

(1) starting college having an already very strong relationship

(2) tending toward internal motivation and validation, rather than seeking external motivation and validation

No Change (n=11)

"It wasn't until like high school that I really developed my own academic interests, but they weren't ever really addressed in a high school setting. And then my parents obviously weren't much of a more motivating force for me either…In terms of motivation, it's like, it's very internally driven for me."

 -Andrew (white man, first-gen)

Negative Change (n=16)


Although some of these students overall still have a good relationship with their parents, they perceive that relationship as changing in negative ways.


Common themes:

(1) financial struggles impacting the college experience

(2) parents’ lack of understanding about the college process

(3) conflict over students’ worldviews changing while parents’ worldviews remained stagnant

Negative Change (n=16)


"I was like a straight A-student my entire life, and then to go from straight As to failing, like everything, um, they constantly were like, ‘How could you be doing this?...Are you just messing around out there?’ All of these things, and me having to sit down and tell them very respectfully, ‘Okay Mom, Dad, do not take this the wrong way but I'm in college, a university, specifically at a state that's not near us. Like it's six hours away, completely alone. I don't have family out there. I don't have friends out there. You guys have never experienced anything near that."

-Luna (Latina woman, first-gen)

Neutral Change (n=7)

These students have experienced changes in their relationships with their parents, but have a neutral attitude about these changes.

Students in this category tended to talk about their parents less overall in their interviews than students in other categories, but one clear theme emerged: believing that changing relationships with parents is just a fact of growing up.

Neutral Change (n=7)

“[In college] you're supposed to be grown. You're supposed to be able to figure stuff out on your own.”

-Josie (Black woman, first-gen)

“I was home for four days and I didn't even unpack my stuff and I had to come back to campus. So it was like I didn't really see my family at all this summer…I want to live in a big city and I know that sometimes that's a consequence of that.”

-Ray (white man, first-gen)

There were several major implications of this chapter, seated in sociology and education scholarship.

  1. I illustrated the importance of students’ narratives to their development as emerging adults.

  2. Contrary to the prevailing conclusion that relationships between college students and their parents tends to remain relatively stable or to improve, I found that the first-generation college students in my study experienced much more variation in their perception of the relationship evolution.

  3. The small comparison group of continuing-gen students in this study was also distributed across the categories of positive, negative, no change, and neutral, but the narratives of first-gen students are distinct from theirs. First-generation college students face unique challenges and rewards in their relationships with their parents as they transition through college.

Crowd with Masks

Chapter 2

No Longer “Fish in Water”: Three Case Studies of First-Generation College Students Moving Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic






Although it's been well-established that first-generation college students face significant barriers to integration on campus, I was more interested in how these students interact with their families and home communities as they begin to adopt a new habitus—tendencies toward thinking, acting, and feeling certain ways (Bourdieu 1977).

In Chapter 2, I explored the narratives of three first-generation college students who were forced to reckon with their new habituses in the context of where their old habituses were formed, when they were sent home from campus to live with their parents during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020. These students experience a cleft habitus—feeling split between an old habitus and new habitus as a result of upward social mobility—and this distress was heightened and exaggerated by the suddenness of the onset of the pandemic and consequent move back home.

“...when habitus encounters a social world of which it is the product, it is like a 'fish in water': it does not feel the weight of the water and it takes the world about itself for granted.”

-Pierre Bourdieu

Quick Facts:

  • I used longitudinal interviews over the first three years of college

  • I presented three case studies on the difficulties of navigating divergent habituses in the context of natural disaster mitigation strategies (namely, lockdowns at home)

  • I looked at how a crisis like a pandemic or other natural disaster can heighten awareness of this conflict


  • This research isn't meant to establish general trends, but does contribute to sociological, higher education, and natural disaster literature

  • Longitudinal interviews help uncover what it's like to experience upward mobility in progress


​Ashley's story is one of triumphing over her dire living conditions at home, her at-times abusive relationship with her mother, and battling her own insecurities to emerge from living with her parents during COVID resolved to improve herself and build her future. 

"I've definitely grown in a sense of being more comfortable with other people. Because I had a lot of anxiety, even now, I'm still taking medicine for my anxiety and depression. So that was a big thing in my first year, but I feel like now, especially the things I went through with my mom over the summer. I think I really just grew up in a sense. I was like ‘Okay I can make my own decisions now,’ you know, ‘I'm not scared.’

There were several major implications of this chapter

  1. As some scholars have argued, habitus can change as we accumulate new experiences.

  2. Context shapes the extent to which an individual is subject to experiencing a cleft habitus—for the students in this study, COVID forced this reckoning of their old and new habituses.

  3. Many universities engage in initiatives focused on integrating first-gen college students on campus, but more attention needs to be paid to the consequences of students’ internalizing the values, tastes, and dispositions of the university environment when they return home.

Graduation Ceremony

Chapter 3

“Sugar-Coated Animosity”: First-Generation College Students and Their Expectations of Future Tensions with their Parents Over Their Upward Mobility

Throughout data collection and analysis, I was surprised that not a single student indicated they intended or expected to cut ties with their parents in the future. Students shared harrowing stories of abuse, neglect, and general negativity in their relationships with their parents, and yet, every student in the study expected the parent-child tie to endure.

For Chapter 3 of my dissertation, I decided to look at this topic more closely by exploring first-gen college students’ expectations of future tension with parents over their upward mobility. I hypothesized that many students expected conflict with their parents in the future over their expectedly higher class and status positions (as a result of their college education).

My findings from interviews with 39 first-gen students from Wave 3 of HEIP are presented below.

Expect Tension (n=17)


  • Anticipate parents will envy their higher income or status, accuse them of thinking they are too good for their families, or think their children don’t work as hard as they do

  • Some plan to mostly ignore jealousy; others resent parent’s attitudes and insist that they’ve worked hard to get where they are or have made better choices than their parents

  • Some envision relationships with parents devolving significantly; others see this strain as just a minor blip in the evolution of their relationships

Changed Worldviews

  • Feel their minds and worlds have been expanded by what they have learned and people they’ve met in university

  • See new options for themselves and their lives

  • Some believe parents feel threatened by changed outlooks; others foresee themselves initiating disagreements because they now perceive parents’ worlds as too small

  • College showed them possibilities for their lives, and much of the expected tension stems from not wanting to follow parents' life paths

Parents Lack Understanding

  • Parents lack understanding about college process and navigating post-graduation life and career

  • Parents can’t relate to their college experiences, and may not have a grasp of what navigating the job market for those with college degrees is like

  • Feel that there is an inherent tension in the relationship because of this divide 

  • Anticipate they will grow frustrated or impatient with their parents’ lack of understanding

Don't Expect Tension (n=22)

Supportive Parents

  • Parents express support in different ways (e.g. frequent communication, visits on campus, high expectations for children’s future career success, reminding their children of the importance and value of family)

  • Don't necessarily feel close to parents or expect to have a close relationship moving forward

  • Believe parents will continue to support and encourage them through life and career decisions

Well-Off Parents

  • Parents already financially well-off or have powerful positions at their jobs

  • Admire parents’ financial and career success

  • Hope they will be able to mirror their parents’ trajectories themselves

This chapter demonstrated that even just the prospect of upward mobility post-graduation can create strife in family relationships, underscoring the importance of social forces in family conflict. 

Actionable Insights

HEIP is an ongoing project, and it continues to function in partnership with the Office of Student Life at Ohio State. My dissertation provides actionable insights for how to improve first-gen college students' experiences and outcomes.


Overall, what most negatively impacted first-gen students’ perceptions of their relationships with their parents—and consequently, their college experiences—was parents’ lack of basic knowledge about what college is like. Some of these gripes had more to do with the students’ personal choices—like parents’ disapproval of drinking and partying—but others reflected a systemic failure to educate and prepare parents for their children’s educational journeys—like parents not knowing what it meant to declare a major. As the university sees relationships with parents as integral to college success (and enjoyment!), I recommended the following proactive outreach to parents:


  • Provide parents with the opportunity to truly experience what a day in the life of a college student is like.

    • This could look like a ”take your parents to class” day during parents’ weekend (when space allows it), or perhaps providing a sample lecture during open houses.

  • Create an optional online course for parents to complete on their own time, targeted at the parents who are most disconnected from what college is truly like. The curriculum could include things like:

    • Declaring a major

    • What is the FAFSA?

    • What to do when your child doesn’t want to come home for the weekend

Personal Takeaways

I believe that sociological interrogation of not only norms, trends, inequality, and problems—but people’s experiences of those social dynamics—is essential for understanding how our world works and where it can be improved. The students in this study—through their bravery, honesty, strength, and hope for the future—reminded me that our personal relationships have the power to be their own force for change.

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