Students come to graduate school from a variety of socioeconomic trajectories, determined either by their parents' educational and occupational circumstances or by their own occupational histories. Some students delay higher education in order to earn and save money, gain professional experience, or support their families. Socioeconomic background is a largely "invisible" but important factor that influences students' mentoring needs. Rural or inner-city origins; growing up in a blue-collar family; being raised by a single, struggling parent or in a very large family; low family income; and family unemployment are all factors that can put students at an educational disadvantage.
Quite often, graduate students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are the first in their family to complete an undergraduate degree. The fortitude these students develop to perseverance and pursue their academic ambitions is a highly desirable quality for success in graduate school. The effects of a disadvantaged background do not stop, however, just because a student has entered graduate school. Students who experienced hardships earlier in life need mentoring that is attentive to their concerns.
Students from working-class backgrounds often cannot turn to family members for monetary support throughout graduate school. What is more, some students carry responsibilities for financially or physically supporting their parents, siblings, or other relatives while obtaining a degree. It is common for these students to feel the need to work additional jobs outside of their departments, even if they have graduate fellowships or appointments.
Access to professional networks
Graduate students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds can experience greater difficulties accessing or creating professional networks in academe. They might not have had as many opportunities to develop these relationships as their peers from more advantaged backgrounds, especially those peers who grew up in academic families. This disparity surfaces most pointedly when students struggle with the costs of financing travel to professional conferences or the need to seek summer employment each year.
Summer professional opportunities
Students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds often face having to disrupt their academic training during the summer. Because of financial constraints, they may seek better-paying jobs off campus instead of accepting low- or no-pay (but academically relevant) internships. Outside employment temporarily distances them from their studies, and fears of falling behind can arise. Professors who are unaware of their students' financial situations can inadvertently misconstrue interest in outside employment as a lack of commitment to academic study.
Difference in background experiences
Some students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds can find it intimidating to hear about the spring break or summer travel experiences of fellow students. Those in the arts, humanities, and social sciences can feel especially vulnerable knowing that some of their peers have traveled to, or even lived in, the foreign countries they are studying.
Disconnection with family and friends
Like many other graduate students, those from disadvantaged backgrounds probably have had to move away from their families. Once a student becomes socialized into the discipline, talking with old friends and family about scholarship or academe may be difficult. Some relatives might have trouble relating to the way a student talks about scholarly endeavors or might wonder why the student is not working in a "real job." This communication gap can cause graduate students to feel disconnected because they feel less comfortable in their old worlds but not yet settled into their new ones.
Suggestions for Students
- Try to learn from faculty and more experienced students about the ways academic networking works.
- Be alert to and creative about funding opportunities, especially for the summer period. Well before the spring semester, be sure to ask your mentors and professors about their resources and how they can help you strategize for continuous support during your degree program.
- Ask your professors to put books or course packets on reserve at the library or in the department to help reduce expenses.
- Take pride in your scholarly accomplishments and share the news of your work in language that your friends and family back home can relate to.
- Encourage and support all your peers' dreams and aspirations, just as you expect your mentors and peers to support yours.
Suggestions for Faculty
- Be aware that not all students have had the same opportunities to learn how to create networks to support their academic and career goals. Make an extra effort to introduce your students to people you know can help them expand their networks.
- Be alert to funding opportunities for your students, especially for the summer period, and alert them to opportunities as far in advance as possible so they can plan effectively.
- Put books or course packets on reserve so that students do not always have to buy their own copies.
- Enrich the discussions students have with you and with each other by having them share perspectives from a variety of experiences — travel, study, work, international friends, family stories, etc.