Meaningful Connections: Mentor-Mentee Relations and Their Promotion of Sense of Belonging Amongst First-Generation Students

by Jessica Angeles

Mentor: Sasha Fleary, Child Study and Human Development; funding source: Barbara B. Young Summer Scholars Fund


There is an increasing rate of first-generation college students (FGCS) attending post-secondary institutions with 56% of undergraduatesidentifying as first-generation college students (those that were first in their family to receive a bachelor’s degree) in the 2015-2016 year. Despite their increasing presence on college campuses, particularly predominantly white campuses, these students still continue to face disparities when adjusting to their post-secondary institutions. Their ‘invisible identity’, which is not known unless stated, makes its intersections with other identities such as race, socioeconomic status, and/or status of residency play a larger role on their experiences. In these spaces that are often unfamiliar to them, FGCS may face hardships in their academics and socialization to campuses, so the question is what can institutions implement to improve the experiences of what is now a prominent group at their schools? Studies have shown the positive effects of social support in the student experience and more importantly, a student’s sense of belonging. Sense of belonging is a “basic human need” that can shape how a student views their institution, how they see themselves in a space as well as how they adjust to a space. The implementation of programs and learning communities that target an FGCS’ belonging and orientation to institutions can provide the necessary support to create an equitable environment for these students. Mentorship, in particular, has the ability to integrate students academically and socially. Its flexibility in terms of how it is offered (informally or formally through peers or faculty) can not only spread valuable information but allow FGCS to see their potential at these institutions through individualized social support.

            In this study, I hope to explore what promotes and what harms sense of belonging of FGCS and what role mentorship plays in these sentiments given the complexity of the FGCS identity. Through the conduction of interviews with current FGCS at Tufts University, I will explore these concepts and later use this data to inform institutions and their programs such as The FIRST Resource Center at Tufts, student needs through the stories from the students themselves. This research is a way in which I hope to challenge institutions to think about more than just the access they provide their students with, but rather the kind of support that gives them the opportunity to succeed as well as navigate their post-secondary institutions. As Engstrom and Tinto mention in their 2008 paper, “Access without support is not an opportunity” and it is time for us to shift this lens from what students could do to what institution can do for the students.

Acknowledgements: In a study dedicated to exploring the benefits of social support to first generation college students, I have to give a huge thanks to those that have supported me so far in this process. I want to thank Jared Smith and Margot Cardamone and their roles in the First Resource Center. I want to thank my faculty mentor over the summer, Dr. Sasha Fleary as well as my two thesis committee members Dr. Natasha Warikoo and Dr. Heather Urry for their support as I continue the project into my senior year. Thank you as well to Summer Scholars for providing me with the opportunity and the funding to be able

5 thoughts on “Meaningful Connections: Mentor-Mentee Relations and Their Promotion of Sense of Belonging Amongst First-Generation Students

  • October 23, 2020 at 4:45 pm

    I really appreciate your discussion about the need for support for FGCS and the hardships faced as this identity intersects with other identities. I can see the way your thoughtful work towards providing a platform for students to speak about their experiences and increasing awareness can move the needle on changing the way universities like Tufts see and support their students. Excited to see where your research goes next!

  • October 23, 2020 at 4:48 pm

    This is a really interesting and relevant project!! I’m particularly interested in how you discuss a sense of belonging as a basic human need, and I’m curious about how the restrictions at Tufts due to COVID will impact a sense of belonging for FGCS–since our community as a whole feels more fragmented right now, would that exacerbate the problem for FGCS or will it serve to even things out in a way? I’m excited to see where your research goes and how you apply it to concrete solutions.

  • October 23, 2020 at 9:37 pm

    Hi Jessica, this is really cool! Obviously the question at hand is a very important one, especially during COVID as Brittany discusses above, and I feel like the fact that you’re able to apply your research to your work with the FIRST center really amplifies its potential impact. Nice job!

  • October 24, 2020 at 1:13 am

    Jessica-this is a really great topic that is certainly deserving of further inquiry. I’m curious to find out if, and to what extent, digital connections are less impactful than in-person connections. If there is no difference, then perhaps digital connections will become normalized.

  • October 27, 2020 at 1:55 am

    Jessica I’m really impressed with your research! I think it’s fantastic that you’re not only working towards investigating the meaningful connections between FGCS mentor-mentee relations in general, but that you’re also looking to apply what you learn to help improve the current FGCS mentorship program at Tufts. One of the things you mentioned, “individualized social support”, especially struck me because the FGCS experience is truly not a universal one. There isn’t a “fix all/for all” guide to college for students who are the first in their families to go to college because there isn’t a singular experience for first-generation college students. I like that you emphasize this in your study by stating that the FGCS identity holds intersections with other identities including race and socioeconomic status. As a FGCS myself, I’m really thankful for the help your project is doing to improve the first generation experience in college in general, but especially in Tufts.

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