When I attended my undergraduate institution as a first-generation student from a lower socioeconomic background, I needed to work many part-time jobs in order to stay in school.
Although my mom gave me emotional support, there was little she could offer me financially. I snagged an on-campus work-study position in the computer center, as well as a job at The Gap folding sweaters on repeat. At the end of my first year, however, I jumped at an opportunity to work in the campus apartment complex. It provided me with free rent in exchange for 10 hours per week in the office and five hours per week with the maintenance staff.
The latter responsibilities included painting, grounds work, carpet cleaning, and apartment cleaning for turnover. I reported to Larry, the facilities manager. Larry was a little younger than my parents and had a gruff edge to him. He reminded me of men I knew back home; he worked with his hands and he didn’t say a whole lot — at least not at first.
As I worked with my peers to turn over apartments, the dichotomy between those of us who were used to manual labor and those of us who were not quickly became apparent.
In very short order, I found my job schedule flipped; I worked for Larry for 10 hours a week and spent just five hours in the office. I attributed this change to the fact that I picked up painting so quickly without getting any on the carpets. I was also physically strong enough to lug the carpet steamer up endless flights of stairs, and in terms of cleaning toilets, this wasn’t my first rodeo. Nearly every job I’d had in middle and high school had required scrubbing a porcelain bowl.
Over the course of that summer, Larry’s initially tough demeanor softened and I found myself talking with him about a variety of things outside of the job. We discussed his son, why he wanted to take a job like this, and what he hoped to do in the future. I told him where I was from, why I was attending college, and how I didn’t know what was next for me.
Building this relationship with Larry was beneficial to me because it assured me that at least one employee at the institution understood a background similar to mine, and he could relate to feeling out of place in the academic community.
After that summer ended, along with the job, I continued to seek out Larry to chat or to borrow a tool for whatever project I was working on. This was noteworthy because Larry almost never let anyone touch his tools. This small kindness let me know, without him needing to say a single word, that he trusted me and that I was worth the risk.
This gesture is very similar to the type I had experienced with adults back home, particularly men. They communicate more in actions than in words.
On the contrary, the professors and administrators I met on campus tended to behave in the opposite way. I learned to value both demeanors, but the relationship I had with Larry did – and will continue to – stand out to me because it was so rare for me at the time. Although Larry didn’t teach a class nor guide me through any administrative processes, he was still a tremendously valuable (and memorable) part of my college education. He provided me with a sense of home in an environment that felt otherwise foreign and served as a more concrete motivator for me to work hard and do a good job.
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about Larry as I’ve been collecting data for my dissertation on first-gen students. In multiple focus groups, students, without prompting, have discussed the impact that custodians, food service employees, facilities employees, and other campus support staff have had on their college experiences. Students speak of feeling cared for when food service workers ask how things are going, and tell the students that they are proud of them. Students say they feel useful when custodians who share their identities ask for advice about how to help their own children apply and pay for college.
Sure, many of these focus group participants also spoke about the value of their relationships with faculty and administrators, which are also critical to first-gen success. But relationships between first-generation students and other campus employees seem to have a strong effect on these students’ sense of belonging — and these matter too.
In the world of higher education, there is an unofficial hierarchy of value in terms of who imparts knowledge (or wisdom) to students. At the top of that hierarchy is faculty. Below that are administrators. For many faculty, administrators, and even higher education researchers, that’s the end of the list.
But to ignore the wisdom and support provided to students via other university employees would be foolhardy. On the contrary, we should be asking what we can learn from these types of relationships and why they are so successful.
As administrators, we often rack our brains to strategize ways of creating meaningful interactions with students. We believe that such interactions might lead to a relationship that could increase that student’s likelihood of success. And, yet, my students spoke to the fact that this is happening organically with campus support employees, likely without those employees feeling an internal pressure to foster such relationships.
Why is that? I’ve noticed three qualities of student relationships with support staff that allow such relationships to be almost effortlessly successful:
1. They are genuine
The relationships that my focus group participants spoke about were built and maintained because without any ulterior motives.
This was also true of my relationship with Larry. He wasn’t concerned with student development theory or retention numbers. He simply wanted an employee who could do a good job, and (I hope) he developed a respect and a relationship with me over time as he saw his expectations being met. This was a relationship I could recognize; I knew what was expected of me and I had some sense of what I could expect from him.
On the contrary, with professors and administrators, I was often confused as to what was expected of me, and how to navigate relationships that seemed more transactional in nature.
As simple as it is to say, it’s important to talk to students casually without an agenda or ulterior motives. Ask them about their lives and tell them about yours. Develop a rapport that isn’t focused on the next program, paperwork deadline, or task you need them to complete.
2. They are informal
When a dining service employee has a strong relationship with a student, it likely developed because that employee consistently asked how the student’s day was going. Then, because the student saw a bit of themselves or their family in that employee, they opened up over time.
Having shared backgrounds or values allows the employee to ask “How are you?” more out of a genuine curiosity than as a prompt to begin talking about a program or intervention effort. All too often as administrators, we can be in a rush to make a connection. This desperation shows. We want it to be immediate, and to all students but especially first-gen ones, that can feel suspect.
As administrators, we need to play the long game, building genuine relationships over time rather than only aiming for successful one-and-done interactions.
3. They are consistent
When you are playing the long game, repeated interactions can help a first-gen student build familiarity and trust with you over time.
Remembering that they told you about an upcoming test or a family member’s visit and asking about it later can demonstrate that you care about them beyond whatever appointment you are encouraging them to make or document you need them to sign. Plus, sharing bits of your own college experience can help a student to see that you understand a bit of what they’re going through and that you might have useful tips or insights to provide them.
If you have the opportunity, consider creating an event or passive program wherein students can let support staff know about the impact they’ve had. Whether it’s a catered event, a card-writing campaign, or a letter-writing program, give students a formal opportunity to show gratitude for the wisdom and kindness these employees have provided.
Campus support staff provide a wealth of real-world knowledge and support for first-gen students, and they should be celebrated for that. Rather than ignore the types of relationships students develop with campus support staff, and be oblivious to the value they provide, administrators should study such relationships and learn from them.