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"Stories Matter:" A Narrative Inquiry Exploring First-Generation University Student Persistence Open Access


Other title
Higher Education
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Buddel, Neil A
Supervisor and department
Wimmer, Randolph (Educational Policy Studies)
Examining committee member and department
Pidgeon, Michelle (Simon Fraser University)
Kelly, Jennifer (Educational Policy Studies)
Seifert, Tricia (Montana State University)
Grace, Andre (Educational Psychology)
Everall, Robin (Educational Psychology)
Chovanec, Donna (Educational Policy Studies)
Clandinin, Jean (Elementary Education)
Department of Educational Policy Studies
Adult Education
Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Though postsecondary participation has increased overall, the rate of participation has risen more sharply for middle-class students compared with working-class students (Knighton & Mirza, 2002). Especially pronounced is Krahn’s (2009) finding that children from families where at least one parent completed university are almost three times more likely to complete university, compared with children who come from families where parents did not complete university. While the extant quantitative literature provides a clear mapping of the terrain concerning the underrepresentation of first-generation students in universities, little is understood of their actual experiences in university (Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004; Pike & Kuh, 2005). This dissertation explores the experiences of four female students who are attending Pillar University , a world-renowned institution in Southern Ontario. They are all first-generation students as defined by Pillar University; however, Kayla and Katrina’s parents both completed university outside of Canada. Further, all the women are from immigrant families (Kayla, Katrina, and Dani are first-generation immigrants, having been born outside of Canada, while Marina, having been born in Canada, is a second-generation immigrant), which also features prominently in their experiences. Although the majority of the qualitative research concerning first-generation students is in the narrative research (Clandinin, 2013) tradition, the responses (not stories) have been used to elucidate themes across participants and have been void of context, thereby positing structures that apply to groups as a whole. In order to deeply explore the experiences of the participants, narrative inquiry was chosen as the most appropriate methodology because it is a way of understanding experience when experience is seen as narrative composition (Clandinin, 2013). Intersected with the narrative inquiry, Bourdieuan (1984) tools of habitus, capital, field, and practice were also employed in order to explore sociality, temporality, and place with a particular attention to social class. Altogether, the inquiry was poised to deeply qualitatively explore the following question: for first-generation students, how do the stories of their lives have a formative relationship with their habitus (i.e., the dispositions, beliefs, and values that constitute their worldview) and, if so, how do their lived and told stories shape their university experiences towards persistence? In short, the stories of their lives, particularly those during childhood: (a) served as conditions of existence (shaping the habitus), (b) shaped a resilience-oriented habitus, and (c) projected storied futures for them as university students. Interestingly, salient similar experiences across the participants’ narrative accounts surfaced during analysis; these seven resonant narrative threads (Clandinin, 2013) suggest that, consistent with Bourdieu’s work, people within given social classes develop similar class-based perspectives resulting from similar conditions. These resonant threads also evoke critique of the dominant neoliberal paradigm and valuing merit towards a social Darwinian “survival of the fittest” concerning university access and persistence, which I refer to as the meritocratic narrative. Their resonant threads highlight that the transition into and through university is not always a rational cost-benefit analysis where a student elects to attend, achieves requisite grades, and then chooses an institution based on acceptances. The resonant threads vividly illustrate the temporal nature of experience such that family, cultural, and self-stories of their lives, and particularly during childhood, were formative in the development of imagined future storied identities for the participants as university students. The meritocratic narrative is only a partial story. The idea that stories of our lives shape a person’s dispositions and can create imagined future storied identities, what I have termed the storied-futures narrative, is another lens through which university underrepresentation can and should be viewed. Such a lens attends to how futures identities are storied during childhood (through family and self narratives) to the extent that some youth see some futures – university attendance for example – as a natural progression, while others do not. Examination through storied-futures narrative may contain answers for mitigating social reproduction tied to parental education and enhancing generational mobility. The problem is a social class issue and the solutions – building resilience and introducing future storied possibilities – seem to reside within the entire education system and childhood in particular.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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