The real struggles for ’first-in-family’ university students

Female students who are the first in the family to attend university are much more likely to suffer mental health issues compared to their male counterparts, research has revealed.

A study from The University of Queensland and University of South Australia that worked with "first-in-family" students has shown 40.9 per cent of females experienced mental health impacts, compared to only 3.8 per cent of men.

Associate Professor Garth Stahl from UQ’s School of Education said the study - First-in-Family Project - followed 48 students through their transition from school to university life.

"Being the first person in their family to attend university often leads to an increased level of grit and determination, and this study explored how experiences differed between genders," Professor Stahl said.

"The stark contrast between men and women reporting mental health issues is concerning, and could mean a variety of things. First and foremost, it shows that mental health continues to be a gendered issue and links with other research that suggests men struggle to admit weakness and vulnerability.

"In this study, women were more open from the onset regarding their mental health, while male participants began to either experience mental health issues or become more open about their issues as time went on."

Dr Sarah McDonald , who was also part of the research project, said students from lower socio-economic backgrounds reported that a lack of finances, time management, coursework assessment items, lack of sleep, and course marks were having a significant impact on their mental health.

"Over the course of the study, it became apparent that for some in the cohort, the transition to university had a negative impact on their social and emotional wellbeing," Dr McDonald said.

"From the 48 participants, nine students withdrew from university, seven chose not to attend and two deferred."

Dr McDonald said there was a gender difference in family life and expectations.

"The mothers were often the primary resource in supporting the first-in-family students in their aspiration for and transition to university, where fathers were rarely involved," Dr McDonald said.

"For many of the first-in-family women in the study, part of their aspirations for university were to experience the opportunities and futures their mothers were denied.

"We also heard from participants about their families, friendships, part-time work and university experiences, and it has become clear how first-in-family students often become an important resource for their families."

The research also found that students who are the first to study at university remain severely under-represented in higher education around the globe.

Dr McDonald said there were 26 boys and 22 girls involved in the study, who they hope to stay in touch with throughout their university journey and into their careers.

Funded by the Australian Research Council, the First-in-Family project researched 48 ethnically diverse first-in-family students longitudinally over the course of three years. Participants were recruited from across state, independent and faith-based secondary schools.

The book, First-in-Family Project, will be published next year.