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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Bryan

Support First Gen College Students Really Need

I learned about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs way, way back when I was a baby nursing student. Being eighteen years old and without much life experience, I remember understanding it as tasks to be completed for a successful life...and that everyone would do this. Over the years I would hear it referred to on occasion, but never gave it much thought.

Fast-forward 35 years or so...I had become a seasoned nurse with much life experience. I was well-versed in all things trauma-related, was working with amazing teens from UrbanPromise Ministries in Camden, NJ, but I still needed to learn a thing or two when it came to growing up in urban poverty. I bonded with a gaggle of girls early on at Urban, and when one went away to college, she asked if we could stay in touch. Academic that I am, my mind immediately went to the support I thought she would need - tutoring, proofing her papers, helping with APA format...while she did occasionally ask for help like that, the truth is, she quickly learned to navigate academia and wasn't afraid to ask for help from her faculty. Growing up in poverty had necessitated skills in self-sufficiency and creative problem-solving.

Instead, the support she needed over her four successful years was at the bottom of the pyramid of Maslow's Hierarchy (see the graphic below): things like a food plan, suitable clothing for her part-time job, and bedding for her dorm room. She needed support for the next level up too - safety - in the form of transportation through the city where she was studying. Sometimes this was a bus pass, sometimes it was a Lyft ride.

Continuing up the pyramid here, she wanted to belong on campus and wanted to make friends. She found a club to join but that required fees. College life often equates with fees - whether it's for a club or a lab, for registration - fees that I completely took for granted when our kids went to college, but that this student and her family couldn't afford. Another facet of "belongingness" revealed itself to me: it was because of our emotionally safe relationship, one built on consistency and trust, that I even knew she had these needs. And because I was reliably supportive, she could sleep okay, eat okay, get the books she needed and register for the courses she needed. Which led to the next level on the pyramid - esteem. She accomplished a lot. She drew the attention of more than one professor because of her wise insights afforded by growing up in Camden. She excelled at an internship that led to her first job. And most importantly, she graduated from college and is now completely independent. Heck, I think she's going to beat me to self-actualization!

Seriously, though - we have to support students in a way that allows them not just to survive, but to thrive. Maslow's Hierarchy is about behavioral motivation - how can we expect people to be in a learning mindset when they are struggling with food and housing insecurity? When they never feel safe? These are social determinants of health; I would argue they are also social determinants of success. And I'm not writing this to toot my own horn. I'm writing this from a fervent desire to dismantle structural racism and systemic poverty (they go hand-in-hand in U.S. cities). It is a luxury to be born White in suburban America, with a secure safety net of family and community, to be expected to succeed because of my socioeconomic status and the color of my skin. Between my work in Camden, and my visit to Malawi, Africa, I have realized it is also a luxury to be in a position to self-actualize. Everyone has the potential to self-actualize...imagine what humans could accomplish if that was made possible.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

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