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Differences in self-reported disclosure of college experiences by first-generation college student status.

In this paper we assert that the college experience is a potentially stressful life event that for many, requires a relevant social network to successfully navigate (Bandura, 2004; Brown, Ganesan, & Challagalla, 2001; Dyson & Renk, 2006). We further suggest disclosure of college experiences as both a means of stress reduction (Pennebaker & Francis, 1996) and a potential indicator of opportunities to disclose information with a relevant social network (Bandura, 1977; 2004). In a previous study (Barry, Hudley, Cho, & Kelly, in press), we found evidence that first-generation college students receive social and emotional support from parents, and educational encouragement from parents equivalent to that of their peers; however, differences emerged when these students were asked about discussion of college experiences with parents specifically. As an extension of that research, our interests here are to investigate differences in disclosure of college-related experiences and the proximity of relevant social networks of first-generation college students in comparison to other college freshmen. We investigate these differences by first-generation status and acknowledge the potential influences of ethnicity.

College as a Stressful Life Event

The transition to college can be characterized as a stressful life event due to the variety of life changes that typically co-occur at this time. Social stresses associated with the college transition may include anxiety about moving away from home, family, friends, and a familiar environment and the need to forge new social relationships with roommates, friends, and dating partners at college (Dyson & Renk, 2006; Tinto, 1987). Increased academic responsibilities of college life may also create stress, including increased course load expectations and growing financial obligations (Hey, Calderon, & Seabert, 2003; Ting, 2003). Stress may also come from college students' growing personal independence such as cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, managing credit and bank accounts, and paying bills for the first time (Hey et al., 2003; Ting, 2003).

First-generation College Student Stress

The transition to college can be particularly stressful for first-generation college students (Ishitani, 2003). These students are more likely to work longer hours and have greater family responsibilities than their later-generation peers (Curtona, Cole, Colangelo, Assouline, & Russell, 1994). By first generation, we mean students who are in the first generation of their family to attend a four-year institution of higher education. In general, first-generation college students are less likely to apply to college, less likely to attend college, and more likely to apply to less prestigious colleges (Massey, Charles, Lundy, & Fischer, 2003; Pascarella, Peirson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004; Phinney, Dennis, & Osorio, 2006).

Once enrolled, these students are less successful in their courses and are less likely to complete college (Ishitani, 2003; Ishitani, 2006; Nunez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998). These differences hold even when variability due to ethnicity, gender, SES, GPA, family composition, and achievement test scores are accounted for (Ishitani, 2003; Ishitani, 2006; Pascarella et al., 2004). That is, regardless of demographic and personal differences, first-generation status remains a statistically significant indicator of difficulty in adjusting to and succeeding in college (Ishitani, 2003; Ishitani, 2006). Such differences in the college experiences of first-generation students suggest that college may be especially stressful for them.

Stress Disclosure

Individuals faced with stressful life events who also feel socially isolated and embarrassed, or feel that they lack support, typically also lack opportunities to disclose and discuss stressful events (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986; Pennebaker, Colder, & Sharp, 1990; Pennebaker & Francis, 1996). Limited opportunities to disclose details of stressful life events manifest in long- and short-term health problems and academic difficulties (Pennebaker, 1989; Smyth, True, & Souto, 2001). Alternatively, disclosing the details of stressful life events reduces stress (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986; Pennebaker et al., 1990). For instance, Pennebaker and Frances (1996) found that first-year college students experienced significant reductions in visits to the student health center and increased GPA when they were able to disclose their thoughts and feelings about stressful life events. Benefits were greatest for those who also reported not previously disclosing this information to others. This point becomes particularly relevant when considering first-generation college students, who are likely to have fewer individuals in their immediate social network who can understand and relate to their college experiences.

The act of disclosing details of stressful life events reduces the stress and enhances both academic success and overall health. These findings have been replicated across multiple cultures, languages, ages, education levels, and socioeconomic statuses (Smyth & Helm, 2003). Thus, the act of disclosure is a potential means of stress reduction. Further, the act of disclosure may indicate the opportunity one has to disclose experiences with a relevant social network. The support provided by a social network enhances the ability to cope with stress by providing opportunities for discussion and social comparison with others in similar situations or with experience relevant to a particular situation (Bandura, 2004; Brown et al., 2001). Success in coping is strengthened through social modeling of others who have achieved success in similar situations. Individuals with relevant social supports are therefore more likely to successfully navigate potentially stressful life events (Matsushima & Shiomi, 2003).

First-generation Students and Opportunities to Disclose

We propose that some of the difficulties faced by first-generation college students are due to differences in relevant social support that is specific to college life, and therefore opportunities to disclose potentially stressful college experiences. Further, first-generation college students may be lacking personally relevant models who have achieved success in similar situations and parental support specific to college-related experiences may not be available (Barry, Hudley, Cho, & Kelly, in press).

Dennis, Phinney, and Chuateco (2005) found that a perceived lack of peer social support was a predictor of poorer academic outcomes. A narrative analysis by Phinney and Haas (2003) revealed that first-generation college students varied in their coping ability based on perceived social support. When students perceived themselves as needing and not receiving emotional support, their coping was the least successful. These first-generation college students perhaps needed a mechanism to disclose their personal experiences but lacked the social network capable of relating to the college experience. Students in these situations reported feeling overwhelmed by the expectations of college courses, desire to succeed but not knowing how, social isolation and lack of friends in college, and parents who did not understand their current situation (Phinney & Haas, 2003).

The purpose of this paper was to extend previous research on first-generation college students by investigating potential differences in disclosure of college experiences by first-generation status. The importance of this knowledge becomes apparent when considering the stress that college students, and specifically first-generation college students potentially face and the need to identify means to alleviate stress. If first-generation college students lack a means of disclosure, interventions designed to facilitate disclosure of college experiences would likely benefit this population. To organize our knowledge of disclosure and first-generation college students, we analyzed disclosure by the proximity of the target of disclosure to assess who in a social network is the target for disclosure and if proximity of targets vary by first-generation status.

Influence of Ethnicity on Social Support and Disclosure

We were also interested in exploring the potential influence of ethnicity in disclosure of first-generation college students. A majority of first-generation college students are also members of ethnic minority groups (Smedley, Myers, & Harrell, 1993), suggesting a possible interaction between differences by first-generation status and ethnicity. Research has documented variability in perceptions of support by ethnic identity (Maton et al., 2006; Solberg & Viliarreal, 1997). In studying the relationship between ethnicity, minority student stress, and both academic and psychological well-being of college freshmen, Smedley et al. (1993) found that the stresses felt by African American, Chicano, Latino, and Philipino freshmen were associated with both lower academic outcomes and increased psychological distress. Other researchers have found that perceptions of support vary by ethnicity depending on context and proximity of support (Maton et al., 2006). For instance, African American college freshmen rated parental support as more important to their goals than did a Caucasian comparison group (Maton et al., 2006). The potential influence of ethnicity on perceptions of social support led to our interest in the investigation of a potential interaction between ethnicity and first-generation college students when examining potential differences in disclosure.


Little is known about first-generation college students' opportunities to disclose their college transition experiences. The current paper is unique in examining differences in the disclosure of college experiences between first-generation college students and their peers. We hypothesized that college freshmen would differ in their self-reported disclosure of college experiences by first-generation status and that those differences would be evident across varying proximity of targets of disclosure.


Sample and Setting

Data were collected at four college campuses across the country. These colleges represent a mix of public and private schools, rural and urban colleges, and relatively large and small campuses. Student populations ranged from 20,000 undergraduates at the largest campus to 1,100 at the smallest campus. Participants were incoming freshmen, age eighteen and older. A total of 6,560 students were invited via email to participate in a web-based survey, and we received 1,539 valid responses for a 24% total response rate. Of the 1,539 respondents, virtually all (92%) were between 17 and 19 years old, had lived in the United States for more than 10 years (94%), and had never married (99%). The sample was not balanced by gender, with 74% female respondents. Our sample was also moderately ethnically diverse with 13% Latino, 10% Asian American, 6% African American, 64% White, and 7% other or mixed; 36% of respondents were first-generation students (N = 556).


Survey questions were posted on a secure, password-protected site maintained by the information technology staff at one of the four par ticipating colleges. Email invitations were sent to all incoming freshmen at each of the four campuses in the first month of the 2004-2005 academic year. Each invitation, containing a unique password for that particular student, allowed access to the site for 6 weeks after the initial invitation; 2 follow-up reminders were sent to all freshmen. The survey took 20-30 minutes to complete, and participants were required to do so in a single sitting. Participants who completed the survey were entered in a raffle for a $50 gift certificate at each of the participating colleges.


The self-report, web-based survey was comprised of 39 substantive questions plus demographic questions which provided age, gender, racial group membership, work status, first-generation status, languages spoken, and family income. The 39 substantive questions asked about: (1) factors that affected participants' college choices, (2) participants' high school experiences, and (3) participants' college experiences. This study examined items that assessed students' self-reported opportunities to disclose college experiences.

Disclosure was measured using 13 items relevant to discussing college experiences and social support (e.g., "How often are college experiences discussed with family?" "Now that you are in college, to whom do you go for social/emotional support friends from home?"). These items used a 4-point likert scale with anchors of 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = somewhat disagree, 3 = somewhat agree, and 4 = strongly agree.

An Exploratory Factor Analysis using Principal Axis Factoring with a Varimax rotation was completed on the 13 items. Cronbach's alpha analysis was used to estimate initial reliability of the items taken together as a measure of disclosure and for each identified and retained factor. The factorability of the correlation matrix was calculated using the Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin Measure of Sampling Adequacy (MSA) which was .73. Bartlett's test of sphericity was acceptable with a [chi square] (78) = 4357.73, p = .00. Four factors accounted for 43.2% of the variance: (a) Friends at school encompassing discussion of college experiences, social and emotional support, and socializing with friends at school, a = .72; (b) Professionals encompassing discussion of college experiences with and seeking instrumental assistance from school faculty, staff, and people at school (not identified as friends), [alpha] = .71; (c) Family encompassing discussion of college experiences and social and emotional support, [alpha] = .57; and (d) Friends from home encompassing discussion of college experiences and social and emotional support, [alpha] = .48.



The inter-correlations between the four factors are provided in Table 1. Those scales addressing Friends from home (N = 1,533, M2M = 2.05, SD = 0.50), Friends at school (N = 1,516, M = 2.54, SD = 0.53), and Family (N = 1,535, M = 2.12, SD = 0.49) correlated with each other. Professionals (N = 1,523, M = 1.95, SD = 0.69) at school did not correlate with Friends from home.

Disclosure by First-generation Status

To address the hypothesis that first-generation students will differ in their disclosure of college experiences to others, we used independent sample t-tests for each scale identified by the factor analysis. First-generation college students reported statistically significantly less disclosure than their peers but with a small effect size; Family t(1,394) = 2.28, p = 0.02, Cohen's d = .1, Friends from home t(1,393) = 3.50, p = .00, Cohen's d = .2, and Friends at school t(1,377) = 4.06, p = .00, Cohen's d = .2. No significant differences was found in disclosure with Professionals at school, t(1,383) = 1.00, p = .32. Means and standard deviations are presented in Table 2.

A MANOVA with first-generation status as a fixed factor and Family, Friends from home, and Friends at school as jointly dependent variables was conducted producing a significant omnibus F(3, 1372) = 8.106, p = .000, [[eta].sup.2] = .18. Each subscale produced significant differences but with very small effect sizes by first-generation status with Family, F(1, 1374) = 5.57, p = .018, [[eta].sup.2] = .02, Friends from home, F(1, 1374) = 12.07, p = .00, [[eta].sup.2] = .01, and Friends at school, F(1, 1374) = 16.28, p = .00, [[eta].sup.2] = .01.

Potential Interactions

Next, we conducted a MANOVA with Friends from home, Friends at school, and Family scales as jointly dependent variables and first-generation status and ethnicity as fixed factors to assess for any interactions between first-generation status and ethnicity (Table 3). No significant interactions were found. A second analysis using an ANOVA was used to address Professionals from school including faculty and staff as the dependent variable by first-generation status and ethnicity to assess for any interactions between these variables (Table 3). Again, no interactions were found.


The findings contribute to our knowledge of first-generation college students by documenting differences in disclosure by first-generation status. The lower levels of disclosure in first-generation college students documented here may reflect a lack of social network with relevant experiences in which discussions of details of college-related stressful life events can take place. Findings relevant to proximity of targets of disclosure illuminate the complexity of differences in support networks and thus opportunities to disclose college experiences. First-generation college students reported significantly less disclosure of college experiences with family, friends from home, and friends at school than did their peers. These results provide support for our assertion that first-generation college students have less relevant social support and are therefore less likely to have opportunities to disclose their college experiences with others.

Significantly reduced opportunities to disclose details of potentially stressful life events can have a lasting impact on stress levels, academic success, and physical health (Pennebaker, 1989; 1997; Pennebaker et al., 1990). The lower levels of disclosure reported by first-generation college students may be one additional aspect of the college experience in general that is more difficult for this population of students (Ishitani, 2003; 2006). The lower level of disclosure reported by first-generation status provides implications for potential intervention. In previous research, Pennebaker & Frances (1996) found that disclosing personal and emotional details of stressful life events can have a significant impact on stress reduction, academic success, and overall health in college students specifically. By providing artificially created opportunities to disclose the details of stressful life events, authors have documented that stress reduction can be facilitated in multiple populations (Pennebaker, 1989; 1997; Pennebaker et al., 1990; Smyth, 1998; Smyth & Helm, 2003).

Further, in previous research, males have demonstrated larger effect sizes on measures of stress reduction when provided artificial opportunities to discuss the details of stressful life events than did females (Smyth, 1998; Smyth & Helm, 2003). Females, having typically already discussed details of stressful experiences with their social networks did not benefit to the same extent in stress reduction as did males from artificial opportunities presented to disclose these events. Presumably, these increased effects in males over their female counterparts were due to males disclosing information for the first time in these artificial settings rather than repeating disclosure of the same experience to a new audience.

Given first-generation college students' potential social isolation from those with college experience and their lack of opportunities to discuss their college experiences, they are likely to be in similar circumstances as those males in previous research who had not previously disclosed the details of their stressful life events. As documented here, first-generation college students report less disclosure with family, friends from home, and friends at school than their peers. These findings have direct implications for intervention using artificially created opportunities to disclose stressful life experiences related to college for first-generation college students. The students may stand to benefit in stress reduction by being provided artificial opportunities to disclose their stressful life experiences, as found previously in samples of male college students who had not previously shared their experiences with others (Smyth, 1998; Smyth & Helm, 2003).

Creating opportunities for disclosure for first-generation college students and comparing them to their counterparts would provide additional opportunities to explore these relationships further. Future research should investigate the potential of providing opportunities for disclosure within the population of first-generation college students and compare potential benefits by first-generation status. If effects are found, such future research would have implications for college personnel including faculty and staff, and admissions and counseling service personnel. While it is unlikely that parents or friends from home who did not attend college previously could intervene to address these differences by first-generation status, college faculty and staff are in a unique position to create opportunities for disclosure for this population of students.

Limitations of the present study include self-selection in the sample who chose to respond to the internet-based survey. The sample was further skewed by an over-representation of female participants. The measures used to assess disclosure did not have established psychometric properties. This limitation was alleviated in part by the use of a factor analysis and reported reliability coefficients. Generalization of findings to a larger population and future research undeavors should consider these limitations.


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Cynthia Hudley, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Melissa Kelly, Millsaps College.

Su-Je Cho, Fordham University.

Send reprint requests to Leasha M. Barry, Ph.D., Associate Professor, College of Professional Studies, University of West Florida, 11000 University Parkway, 85/189, Pesacola, FL 32514. E-mail:
Table 1. Correlations between family (Family),
friend at home (Home), and friends at school
(School), and professionals (Prof) factors.

 Family Home School Prof

Family 1.00 .26 * .24 * .15 *
Home .26 * 1.00 .21 * .05
School .24 * .21 * 1.00 .30 *
Prof .15 * .05 .30 * 1.00

Note. * p < .01.

Table 2. Means and standard deviations of family
(Family), friend at home (Home), friends at school
(School), and professionals (Prof) subscales by
first-generation status.

 Status N M SD

Prof Not FG 842 1.94 0.67
 FG 543 1.98 0.74
Family Not FG 848 2.14 0.47
 FG 548 2.08 0.50
School Not FG 833 2.58 0.53
 FG 546 2.46 0.54
Home Not FG 847 2.09 0.48
 FG 548 1.99 0.52

Table 3. Means and standard deviations of family (Family),
friends at home (Home), friends at school (School), and
professionals (Prof) subscales by first-generation status (FG)
and ethnicity.

(N) Family Home School Prof

FG M = 2.14 M = 1.99 M = 2.46 M = 1.98
(551) SD = .54 SD = .52 SD = .54 SD = .73
No FG M = 2.46 M = 2.09 M = 2.58 M = 1.94
(838) SD = .47 SD = .48 SD = .53 SD = .67
White M = 2.16 M = 2.06 M = 2.59 M = 1.98
(896) SD = .46 SD = .49 SD = .53 SD = .68
Black M = 2.17 M = 1.97 M = 2.45 M = 2.17
(78) SD = .43 SD = .52 SD = .50 SD = .82
Asian M = 1.93 M = 2.01 M = 2.42 M = 1.86
(158) SD = .56 SD = .53 SD = .51 SD = .71
Latino M = 2.06 M = 2.04 M = 2.41 M = 1.85
(181) SD = .48 SD = .50 SD = .54 SD = .71
Other M = 1.97 M = 2.08 M = 2.47 M = 1.78
(65) SD = .58 SD = .50 SD = .55 SD = .70
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Author:Barry, Leasha M.; Hudley, Cynthia; Kelly, Melissa; Cho, Su-Je
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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