The findings indicate that first-generation students tend to have lower ratings of sense of belonging and satisfaction than non-first-generation students. Additionally, we found that sense of belonging is significantly related to mental health (level of depression and stress) among students and that first-generation students have a higher frequency of reporting feeling stressed, depressed, or upset compared with non-first-generation students. Further inquiry needs to be conducted to explore the reasons why these findings exist among first-generation students at large research universities. One potential reason could be that many first-generation students are more likely to live off campus and commute to campus (Pascarella et al., 2004; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). This could inhibit opportunities for academic and social engagement (with greater social engagement potentially leading to a higher sense of belonging and satisfaction). Additionally, given the large size of these institutions, it may be more difficult for first-generation students to establish meaningful social connections and become socially integrated on campus.
The data related to mental health usage suggest that both first-generation and non-first-generation students have mental health needs that are not being met (with first-generation students reporting slightly higher responses of needing but not using services). The relationship between sense of belonging and mental health asserts that students' sense of belonging on campus affects more than their academic achievement and retention, as is typically modeled in the literature. Instead, sense of belonging appears to have an influence on students' mental health, a factor that certainly influences other domains of college students' experience.
Finally, we found that first-generation students were less likely than their non-first-generation peers to seek out campus mental health services even though they were aware that they needed to use the services. Additionally, examination of the factors related to why students did not use services revealed that a surprisingly high number of first-generation students found the location and hours to be inconvenient, had never heard of the services, or did not have time to seek out services. Further analysis needs to be conducted on the reasons why students opted not to use counseling services.
Implications and Strategies for College Counselors
The findings suggest that it is vital that college counselors, especially at large research institutions, address the unique mental health issues that first-generation students often encounter. Also, it is important that counselors identify and engage in targeted outreach strategies to reach undergraduate students, primarily first-generation students. We believe that college counselors can play a significant role in these outreach efforts. First, it is imperative that college counselors be familiar with first-generation student demographics, traits, trends in enrollment, and the common issues that students face. As noted previously, Lippincott and German (2007) described several factors that affect first-generation students and their transition to college, including issues related to their family of origin, academic functioning (e.g., time management, skill-related concerns), and adjustment to college (e.g., being away from one's community, meeting new friends). Other researchers have suggested worthy strategies counselors can use to help first-generation learners succeed and to address mental health concerns, including offering group counseling and psychoeducational workshops (Ramos-Sánchez & Nichols, 2007; Wang & Castañeda-Sound, 2008). Students may feel more comfortable in group counseling arrangements rather than in individual counseling settings. Other practitioners have suggested using narrative approaches (Brott, 2005; Stebleton, 2010) and the inclusion of family members to explore genograms and other approaches to best assist first-generation students.
Second, college counselors should partner with programs such as TRiO or summer bridge, which have a high enrollment of first-generation students (Stebleton & Schmidt, 2010). These types of programs aim to enhance both the academic and social engagement (including a stronger sense of belonging on campus) of students. College counselors and leaders of these programs could collaborate to offer workshops on mental health issues and how to access mental health services on campus. Counselors can continue to develop partnerships with other student affairs practitioners and student services across campus to help promote awareness of mental health options for students. Potential collaborators might include new student orientation programs, residential hall staff, career services, academic advising units, student clubs and organizations, and multicultural student affairs. Additionally, messages about mental health should be integrated intermittently into outreach activities with student services on a regular basis. There likely continues to be a stigma around the use of mental health services; one way to break down these misperceptions is for counselors to be more visible in the campus community and share information about the services.
Third, although most counseling centers already engage in some form of outreach, college counselors might consider further outreach activities to help engage first-generation students and to educate student groups about mental health issues. Acting proactively, college counselors could opt to reach out to key faculty members who might serve as allies for the counseling center on campus. One of the most effective ways to reach students is where they are most captive—in the classroom. For example, faculty in the psychology department and counselors may collaborate on a unit addressing access issues to mental health services, including potential disparities in the mental health system. College counselors can facilitate these partnerships with student affairs and faculty by providing professional development and training opportunities for staff and instructors. Information about referral processes and procedures can serve as helpful information for instructors (e.g., location of counseling centers). Some large research universities have multiple counseling resources (e.g., a mental health center that offers assistance and a separate campus counseling center); this can create confusion for staff and students regarding which service is most appropriate to use given a student's unique case. As a result of this uncertainty, it is likely that many students opt not to use any counseling service at all.
Fourth, college counselors can help shape the messages within promotional materials (e.g., flyers, handouts, online notices) about counseling services. A positive, prevention-focused message may help to create awareness and lower the stigma often attached to using mental health services. An overarching message might be that “many students seek out services on campus—and it's accessible to you.” An additional message should be that taking advantage of mental health services can lead to greater student achievement and success (Gerdes & Mallinckrodt, 1994; Kitzrow, 2009). Although students might not relate to statistics citing retention rates, they could be more likely to seek services if they can see a direct, tangible positive outcome of using services, such as meeting personal achievement goals (e.g., a high grade point average). Related to marketing and positive promotion of services, some universities and colleges have robust student-led organizations, such as Active Minds and other peer mentoring initiatives, which help to bring awareness about student mental health concerns. Counselors can get actively involved with these organizations to help offer workshops, facilitate groups, and promote services at monthly meetings.
Finally, there is evidence to suggest that first-generation students significantly benefit from high-impact educational practices (Kuh, 2008). Many of these practices—including learning communities, service learning opportunities, common book experiences, study abroad programs, writing intensive courses, and 1st-year seminars—enhance academic and social engagement. Furthermore, these options tend to promote a sense of belonging and affiliation toward fellow students, faculty members, and the institution. These high-impact educational practices have been demonstrated to have compensatory effects for first-generation and underserved student populations (Kuh, 2008). In other words, first-generation students tend to experience greater gains from participation than non-first-generation students. One strategy to facilitate this sense of belonging is by intentionally creating opportunities that allow for both academic and social engagement. College counselors can encourage first-generation students to get actively involved in high-impact experiences by intentionally advising and referring students toward these opportunities on campus. Clearly, the challenge for campus mental health providers will be to do more with less while moving forward. Despite the realities of increased student demand for mental services and limitations on funding, we strongly believe that college counselors play a critical role in helping to engage and retain first-generation students.
Limitations and Suggestions for Future Research
There are several limitations of our study that should be taken into consideration when analyzing the outcomes and generalizing to other institutions. The SERU is a census survey that relies solely on self-reported student data. Porter (2009) outlined and critiqued the challenges of interpreting self-reported student data on surveys that aim to understand student engagement behaviors and measures. Furthermore, the overall response rates for the 2009 administration were acceptable, but could have been higher. The questions related to mental health were from one of several modules that students were asked to complete. Although there were several questions that address mental health issues and behaviors, the tool was not intended to be a comprehensive mental health instrument or assessment. The intent was to gain an overview of students' experiences related to mental health issues on campus. In addition to quantitative survey data, counseling practitioners and scholars should conduct qualitative studies that explore the meaning of first-generation students' lived experiences related to belonging and mental health issues.
Interview data can complement the extensive data that are regularly collected by institutions with instruments such as the SERU survey and the National Survey of Student Engagement. Scholars could explore first-generation students' 1st-year experiences and then interview them again each year until graduation. Regarding inquiries about high-impact practices, a future study could be conducted to explore the impact of first-generation students who participated in high-impact practices and their perceived sense of belonging as well as mental health status. Additional studies can be conducted on the long-term impact, directly or indirectly, that college counselors can have on first-generation student engagement and student retention. Finally, future studies should explore the specific reasons that first-generation students opt not to use mental health services—even though they acknowledge that they would likely benefit from them.