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First-Generation Psychology Students Report Economic Stress and Delayed Milestones

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Key Takeaways

  • First-generation students in professional psychology programs report greater economic stress.
  • Credit-related stress and graduate school financial stressors were associated with delaying life milestones.
  • No significant differences were found between first-generation students and continuing-generation students in student loan borrowing, general stress, or financial strain.

First-generation college students often face unique challenges. A study published in Training and Education in Professional Psychology found that first-generation students in professional psychology programs report more economic stress and delayed major personal and professional milestones.

Especially as the pandemic has intensified economic precarity for many individuals across the US, such research has far-reaching implications.

Understanding the Research

This study was conducted with 74 first-generation and 249 continuing-generation graduate psychology students and early career psychologists, based on the critical cultural wealth model (CCWM) of career development. The CCWM theoretical framework highlights how first-generation college students experience unique challenges in academia and their careers due to oppressive systems, including institutional racism, classism, sexism, etc.

After controlling for socioeconomic status (SES), the research found that individuals who took out student loans during undergraduate and graduate studies reported a greater likelihood of delaying personal and professional milestones. For participants who reported debt from doctoral studies, as SES decreased, the likelihood of delaying milestones increased.

While this research provides meaningful insights on the unique challenges that are faced by first-generation students in professional psychology, it is worth noting such limitations as some small subsample sizes and an overall sample that was predominantly White, upper-middle class, and heterosexual.

Diverse Mental Health Clinicians Needed

Psychiatrist and chief medical officer of LifeStance Health, Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, says, “Our country is in the midst of a mental health crisis, and it’s important to increase access to mental health services. To provide the highest quality of care to patients, it’s critical that mental health clinicians reflect the diversity of lived experiences in their patient base.”

Based on this research study, Patel-Dunn shares concern that students from diverse backgrounds may be discouraged from pursuing a career in mental health. “This research is an important reminder that we must proactively support and advocate for first-generation students in addition to members of other marginalized communities who may encounter disproportionate hurdles when it comes to higher education,” she says.

Patel-Dunn says, “Just as the patients we treat come to us for support, I believe it’s our duty as mental health clinicians to provide a support system for our fellow clinicians at all stages of their careers. A career in mental healthcare can be incredibly rewarding, and my hope is that by bringing attention to this research, we can begin to proactively address these challenges for the next generation of mental health clinicians.”

Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO

Just as the patients we treat come to us for support, I believe it’s our duty as mental health clinicians to provide a support system for our fellow clinicians at all stages of their careers.

— Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO

While this study focused on students in professional psychology, Patel-Dunn believes that this is relevant to the challenges disproportionately facing other first-generation college and graduate students, as all humans desire a sense of belonging. “A lack of community and inclusion can be detrimental to our mental health and ability to thrive. It’s critical that first-generation students are afforded equal access to supportive mentorship, guidance, and safe spaces as their continuing-generation peers,” she says.

Patel-Dunn continues, “I’ve often reflected on the impact that would be made if every psychotherapist in the country were to donate one hour of time per week or month to help youth in high school and college. Providing support, mentorship and guidance could be very impactful for the next generation of clinicians.”

Lacking Historical Knowledge

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist and certified art therapist at Guidance Teletherapy, says, “For first-generation college students, the study finds their experience is full of struggle. There are a variety of reasons these struggles differ from peers who have had families with higher educational backgrounds.”

Such economic precarity can impact mental health, as Landrum highlights how first-generation college students may work in an attempt to afford to attend school as they do not have a guarantee of assistance in repaying student loans, which may contribute to fear of the future. As a first generation-college graduate herself, Landrum understands the pressure that can come from family members. “They are told they are representing the entire family, and for those who are BIPOC, the entire cultural community, and therefore they must be perfect,” she says.

Landrum says, “These students may not have had families who have built wealth. There may be events, opportunities, or activities that they cannot join because they may not have the cultural knowledge of how to act, respond, or behave in these environments. They may even not have finances for entrance or membership fees. This limits their opportunities in the present and the future for growth and networking. This can cause chronic stress as they may attempt to prove their worth by overworking.”

This research study highlights a unique barrier of first-generation college students, as Landrum describes how they often lack normative capital access, unlike students whose families have navigated the system, and have historical knowledge they can lean on. “They may have even been told, as a family value, that doing this research is asking for a hand-out, and that instead, they must find a way to earn the money on their own. This prideful stance is taken under the guise of protecting the student and the family from shame or pity, without understanding that these resources are made to be accessed, and are often accessed as an earned rewards,” she says.

Landrum says, “Student debt has increased, with those of first-generation college students being affected the most. They may open multiple credit cards in order to stay financially afloat. They may leave school with an overwhelming amount of debt. Financial instability is a contributor to suicidal ideation. When someone is preoccupied with their financial loss and believes they will be unable to overcome it, they begin to feel hopeless.”

When these students are unable to obtain a job with pay that allows them to tackle their debt, Landrum highlights how they may begin to believe they are worthless, as financial debt can cause instability emotionally, mentally, and physically. “It can lead to refusal to get preventative care or engage in life maintenance acts (like tuning up a car), which can cause more financial strain down the road. For students without financial support from family members, this debt causes them to feel isolated and abandoned,” she says.

Landrum says, “More research must be done on students of a lower socioeconomic status and class system, as well as students of BIPOC backgrounds. BIPOC students experience alienation and familial pressure differently than their white peers. They often have to codeswitch, as their common language or vernacular may be looked down upon by their white peers and white professors. They often have to experience discrimination which could discourage the desire to continue education.”

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

More research must be done on students of a lower socioeconomic status and class system, as well as students of BIPOC backgrounds. BIPOC students experience alienation and familial pressure differently than their white peers.

— Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

Given that their families have not personally navigated these circumstances, Landrum describes how they may experience pressure to provide financial support to relatives, especially after graduation, because they may not understand the job market. “Additionally, students whose parents immigrated to the U.S. may also have varying experiences from those whose families had an opportunity to build generational wealth,” she says.

From personal experience as a first-generation college and graduate student, Landrum shares how her family often unintentionally, minimized her stress, as they did not know how to relate, so they were unable to know how to comfort and support her. “My clients have noticed and expressed the same anguish. They have talked about, and this research confirms, how there isn’t a sense of belonging in the academic space. And yet, in the home life, their sense of belonging changes there as well,” she says.

Landrum says, “For my Black and Latinx clients, they talk about how family members will accuse them of abandoning cultural ways because they have changed how they talk or dress. This commentary feels like a betrayal as many clients report attending school because their families forced them, instilling in them that the only way for them to get ahead is with higher education. They claim how unfair it is to follow the path their family pointed them down, just to be criticized for doing it.”

What This Means For You

As this research demonstrates, first-generation students in professional psychology programs report more economic stress and delayed major life milestones. Such findings highlight the need for greater outreach efforts to support first-generation college students, especially those who may be marginalized in multiple ways.

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  1. Wilcox MM, Pietrantonio KR, Farra A, Franks DN, Garriott PO, Burish EC. Stalling at the starting line: first-generation college students’ debt, economic stressors, and delayed life milestones in professional psychologyTrain Educ Prof Psychol. Published online July 22, 2021. doi:10.1037/tep0000385