The University Library: Unlock the Secret Gamebook for First Generation Students

If living through a pandemic, recession, and heightened public awareness around social justice has shown us anything, it’s what it means to have “access.” From toilet paper and high-speed Wi-Fi to navigation systems and scheduling a COVID vaccine, more and more people are beginning to see the invisible barriers that limit equitable access. College libraries and librarians have reinvented themselves to unlock the secret playbook that is holding some students back.

For first generation college students (FGS)those whose parents did not graduate, the barriers to success can be deep and varied.

Graphic credit: firstgen.naspa.org

More and more families of various origins are sending their first student to university. The Center for First Generation Student Success, an initiative of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and the Suder Foundation, reported an average of 45% FGS among public and private 4-year institutions. Seen by institutions that specifically serve minority populations, it is easy to see how each first-generation student comes from unique circumstances.

Each student is unique in the perceptions, experiences and knowledge they bring to campus. Other facets of their life experience can make it harder to navigate the traditional college campus system. The first-generation student typically does not have the same access to resources that make it easier to navigate traditional campus systems, such as guidance from parents or siblings who have lived the experience; deep pockets; or find out which summer internships and references help build careers.

No student is just a category. Each brings unique layers of campus life experience. Graphic: The Diversity Wheel, courtesy of Priya Klocek/Consultant on the Go, adapted from: Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe, Diverse Teams at Work. Burr Ridge, II: Irwin Professional Publishing, 1994. *Internal and external dimensions adapted from Marilyn Loden and Judy B. Rosener, Workforce America! Homewood II: Business One Irwin 1991

If only a student could show up carefree and learn

As a first-generation student myself, I came to campus academically well-prepared. I was less prepared for the kind of network building that happens outside of the classroom; how to find peers for cross-collaboration; how to make the most of campus resources; and how to build my professional network.

For the first-generation freshman, building relationships and their networks is the most important, but also the most invisible. They may not know that success isn’t just about good grades and accomplishments. that it is just as important to establish a network of peers, professors and collaborators.

Librarians are uniquely placed to help students make these connections and networks. Today, librarians get to know students as individuals from their first days on campus and connect them to the people and resources they need then. Using this approach, they build trust and maintain relationships. Librarians take students from being consumers of “one-click efforts” to understanding the research continuum – how each effort builds on previous work to advance and enrich a field of study over time .

For first-generation students, college libraries can become a beacon for creation, discovery, and innovation. They meet students where they are and unlock connections. For more experienced students who have been on campus for a year or more, they forge and expand deeper networks. For the experienced researcher, they foster incredible interdisciplinary innovation. It is a beautiful symbiotic relationship of people, programs, and spaces that flourish over time and prepare first-generation students for lifelong success.

Building relationships and networks starts with designing for belonging

More than walls, doors and windows, architecture connects people to people and shapes behavior. The building itself welcomes and inspires while supporting the individual, helping them to thrive in a team environment and encouraging participation in a larger community. Together, they promote well-being and belonging.

Individual, Team, Community

For the university library, the essential element for developing relationships and networks is the way the student enters the building, passes through it and meets the librarians and staff.

At the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library, that first threshold that a first-generation college student encounters on the street was designed to work in concert with the library’s programming. A transparent entrance allows a student to assess the activity inside before walking through the doors. Glass alone is not enough to create a welcoming entrance. People need to see each other when they look out the windows from the street; dynamic, diverse and rotating programming is essential.

On the other side of the glass, the entrance atrium is intentionally designed to allow for ever-changing activities. Minimal fixed seating and a large tiered viewable space support pop-up exhibits and smaller-scale events. Students learn to expect something different with each visit. They can see and explore different cultures, feel an affinity when the pop-up comes from their worldview, and potentially connect with librarians and liaisons who may float around the area.

Rethinking librarian workflow from the student’s perspective can create a support ecosystem

Learning from many outreach successes, today’s librarians are inspired by the buying habits of Gen Z; engaging in conversation is not a unique proposition. Some strategies librarians use include:

help deskInformation/Help Desks become anchors that a student knows will always be there if needed.

KioskKiosks installed in student work areas allow useful conversations to happen side by side, rather than on a transaction desk. When students see experts actively using a kiosk, it becomes a physical marker that someone will be there, even if they’re not there right now.

ConnectionMobile links circulate throughout the space and actively involve the students. They reach out to students individually rather than waiting to be approached.

For a student who feels like there is something they don’t know, or who may feel like they don’t belong, words matter. The less they are told they are in the wrong place, the better. Staff cross-trained to engage students and assign them to the right expert reinforces that a student is “in the right place” to find resources.

Gear that helps relieve stress goes a long way in making someone feel welcome

Cafes are great attractors and generators of income. However, for many first-generation students, finances are tight. The median household income of first-generation college students is $41,000 per year. Situations like “Pay to study here” like Starbucks can become a psychological burden.

Libraries can emulate the community college playbook by providing free amenities like tea, coffee, and water or free printouts near large-scale study spaces. This can contribute to feelings of welcome and belonging. Students who cannot afford to eat out every day appreciate kitchen amenities like microwaves, refrigerators, and counter space in public areas. Designing these large spaces with comfortable yet flexible furniture and technology enlivens the shared experience of using them.

Navigating a massive library should be intuitive to encourage discovery deeper into the building

Double-height spaces intertwined with a monumental staircase around a visual anchor become a “backbone” of resources. This is where first-year and first-generation students can learn about all of the library’s offerings and how they can tap into its resources.

It’s important to remember that for first-generation freshmen, everything about a university library can seem huge: its physical size, but also the amount of information available and its organization. This may be the first time a student has had access to resources like a writing center, bookbinding lab, or video production suite. By exploring the navigation spine repeatedly, students begin to unlock what these things are and how to use them. By the time a student is in their third or fourth year, they are able to use these tools to advance their work.

A 6-screen x 3-screen matrix (measuring 21′ x 6’9″) provides access to the Hillman Library’s Special Collections Archive with an interactive digital display, designed in collaboration with Potion Design.

University libraries reach out to students in familiar territory

Like the rest of Gen Z, first-generation college students are digital natives. But first-generation students overcame additional hurdles to get to college. Being the first in a family to go to college is a milestone built on years of dedication. They are motivated to be there, but may be hesitant to ask someone they don’t know for help. Interactive displays are incredible tools for revealing previously “hidden” information and networks by displaying information such as:

— Real world problems

— Current research areas on campus

— The people, the researchers who do this work

— Where are these researchers located on campus?

— Additional resources and special collections related to this work

— Resources in other institutions

As the college experience evolves more to allow students to engage with the world on their own terms, programming and spaces must be nimble to meet them where they are physically, emotionally, and psychologically. The University Library has all the essentials for first-generation students to network better and faster. When building, librarian and technology work together, one more step has been taken to set a new generation on the path to success.

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