“In a time of chaos, create”: The First Generation Network

Dr Daniel Smith interviews current second-year Rufeida Alhatimy about a new network for King’s students from backgrounds under-represented among university students.

Dr Daniel Smith (DS): So, Rufeida, you and I spent a lot of time last semester talking about wordplay in English Renaissance literature, but now I hear you’re taking on a new challenge, representing the First Generation Network as an officer within the Student Union. I’m particularly interested in this wonderful initiative as I’ve been co-ordinating the English Department’s Widening Participation (WP) programme this year. Can you start by telling me what First Generation Network is?

Rufeida Alhatimy (RA): Studies have shown that students from a first generation background find the transition to higher education and beyond more taxing and challenging, and the network seeks to help tackle the boundaries and barriers that some of these students face. First Generation Network is one of eight “liberation networks” built into the KCLSU structure, run by students for students to promote positive change and representation. We cater to students who are from Widening Participation backgrounds, those in or leaving care, those whose parents didn’t go to university and those from low-participation neighbourhoods to improve their university experience and create a home away from home.

There is only so much that complaining about things can do – unless you complain about word counts then the situation is completely different, and you’re allowed to complain. Taking charge of the situation is what makes a difference.

DS: As someone who’s just sat down to a big pile of marking I know what you mean about word counts… I want to know more about the ways the network is taking charge of the situation, but could you tell me a little bit more about the particular kinds of challenges faced by the students you’re trying to reach?

RA: University can be very stressful for students from Widening Participation backgrounds. If your parents haven’t gone through the university system, for example, they aren’t always able to support you in navigating and understanding it. Then there’s a feeling of being lost, and not belonging to the university environment. There is also a question of career aspirations – what comes next? These kinds of conversations go on in most homes, but if your parents went to university then you’ll already be familiar discussing post-university options. Similar issues apply to students coming to university from care, or those from schools or areas that don’t have traditions of sending students to university. This network seeks to ease these stresses by focusing on change that can be created with all the chaos students feel they are facing, particularly in the first year of their degree. For this reason, if there is one motto I have lived with during the build-up of this network and generally in life, it is the same one I started with: In a time of chaos, create.

DS: Creativity in the face of chaos and adversity is a very literary attitude to take – I like it. Have you drawn a lot on your own experience in working with the network?

RA: The main obstacle I faced as a First Generation student was the language barrier, since English is actually my fourth language! I’ve regularly questioned why I’ve chosen to study a degree that is not in my first language – and why that is the English degree out of all available degrees. Reading parts of The Faerie Queene made me question whether the English I spent so long learning was even English. What I love so much about leading this network is getting to meet and spend time with various people, from diverse backgrounds and having the privilege to hear such inspiring stories about similar sorts of obstacles that have been overcome.

DS: That kind of support and mutual inspiration is so important. And you’re so right about a text like Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which is baffling enough when you already know what to expect – let alone if you’re thrown into it with no peer support! So tell me some of the things that the network has been up to since it was set up.

RA: This year has been buzzing with ideas to be brought to life – and all sorts successfully completed. We have had many meetings to talk about experiences, build friendships, and plan our first steps to implement change and support students at uni. For example, we organised and hosted an event called 4000 Words and Counting event in collaboration with ARK (Acts of Random Kindness) Academia team. Here, third year students shared advice on essay writing along with wellbeing tips on how to keep your head above water whilst writing lengthier essays. One quite simple piece of advice we heard, but something that can often get lost, is to write your essays in sections and think of it as a gradual process, rather than trying to do it all in one go and feeling completely overwhelmed and not good enough.

We have also successfully run Picking up the Pieces, a skills-based workshop where freshers can speak to humanities students studying the same course to understand how to regain composure after the first set of assessments are in and feedback is released. It is common for First Generation students to feel like university is not for them at this point – there’s actually a spike in drop-out rates for FG students at this point in the semester – and we find it important to reinforce that something great can come out of feedback with the right approach. Having older students has been effective in forming friendships and giving freshers the opportunity to learn from students who have been through similar struggles.

DS: It’s a really important insight that I think will make a huge difference to WP activities at university, which often tend to focus on going into schools or inviting students to open days and study days. We need to understand that the whole first-year experience needs to keep supporting the work we do in making university study a more attractive option to potential students. You probably know that the Department has just set up a new magazine called Intro to help make the transition into first-year a bit less baffling. What other initiatives do you have lined up?

RA: The First Generation Network will continue to promote student-to-student mentorship in the upcoming year with the events we have lined up. There are so many exciting initiatives lined up for the year and as the network is quite new, incoming students will have more input over how the network runs and what events take place.  For example, we will be running welfare circles, a safe space for First Generation students to talk about issues and share stories to fellow students.

We will also be launching video campaigns to raise awareness about the First Generation experience and give students the opportunity to talk about their own journey to university and reflect on time spent at university. This will be an online campaign so it can be shared with parents and families – even before the application process – to help others understand what it is like being the first in your family to go to uni. This will also be a way of sharing experiences with those who may be considering university but are holding back.

DS: It’s great that alongside the peer support you’ll be providing resources that reach beyond the group meetings. Lecturers will also be able to use these resources to understand better some of the issues their students are facing. What would you say to current or incoming students who are interested in taking part in the network?

RA: Amongst all the open events, there will be endless opportunities to bond with students who are in the same boat and share concerns with committee leads, for example in our planned First Generation group picnics. We want YOU to get involved in shaping our network and creating a space where we can all turn to in a time of chaos.
Email us on kclfirstgeneration@gmail.com, or find us on Instagram (@firstgenerationnetwork.kcl) and Twitter (@FirstKCL) to get a glimpse of what we have been up to.
You can also find more information here: https://www.kclsu.org/news/article/6015/Welcome-to-the-First-Generation-Network/.

Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.

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