“I worked really hard to get here. I wouldn’t want to go back.” Exploring the narrative of one first-in-family nursing student during their university transition.

Our guest Blogger this week is Associate Professor Sarah O’Shea from the University of Wollongong. I have known Sarah for nearly ten years and for much of the time we lived next door to each other. Sarah and I have much in common … we were both the first in our families to attend university, both immigrants to Australia, both mums who struggled with ‘imposter syndrome’ as we juggled PhD candidature and full time work.  Perhaps most important though is our shared commitment to student success and the incredible joy we experience when we watch our former students cross the stage at graduation, particularly when they have struggled with challenging life experiences. 

Since moving to Wollongong Sarah’s academic journey has flourished and I have watched with admiration her inspirational First in the Family research. In this post Sarah shares Marlee’s story of transition to university, what it means to her and her family, and how it illustrates the types of hurdles that many first in family nursing students encounter.

Nursing programs are the third most popular choice of study area in Australia [1]. In 2014 over 17,000 students started a nursing degree; 2,316 of these were men [2]. Over a third of nursing students are in the lowest socio-economic band and many are returning to education after a significant gap in learning [1]. There is a tendency for many universities to operate within a discourse of deficit focusing on what students lack instead of welcoming and celebrating the cultural wealth or strength they bring with them [3]. Working within a mass university system characterised by increased student diversity also means that it can be very difficult to remain mindful of the student as an individual.

My research with students has focused on foregrounding individuals’ subjective experience of attending university with an emphasis on the narratives of learners who are defined as disadvantaged or belonging to equity categories. This work has highlighted the transformative potential of attending university [4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9], the identity work that students (particularly women) undertake [10, 11], as well as approaches to retaining and supporting diverse student populations [12, 13].

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Listening to and telling stories fulfils a very basic need in people. As an educator hearing students’ stories has provided entry into the lived experience of attending university, offering rich insights into both the unique trajectories of learners and also providing a means to recognise common patterns or experiences across populations.

I would like to share one such student story that whilst unique also reflects common themes echoed across our First-in-Family (FiF) project. Marlee (pseudonym) participated in a study that focused on students who were first in their families to attend university [12]. FiF students are a significant proportion of the student population globally and while not recognised as a equity group in Australia are commonly regarded as being “at-risk” of attrition due to financial, cultural and academic issues [5, 6, 14,]. The FiF category can also be regarded as a ‘supra equity’ category [13] which traverses existing equity categorisations.

At age 19, Marlee is in the first year of her nursing degree and during our conversation, reflected deeply about how coming to university has been a ‘big deal’. Growing up in a housing commission estate, she is the first in her family and in her immediate community to come to university. University was largely regarded as something outside her own and her family’s worldview, as she described:

In my family because we are lower class, sometimes we might look at people from university and go “They’re up themselves, they’re rich”, because we’re disadvantaged. I am the first person that’s gone to uni in our family so it does seem like I am being put on the spotlight quite a bit…community-wise. Because I am in housing commission … a lot of them look up to me [and] go “Wow, you’re doing nursing, that’s incredible”. So I’m getting a lot of praise about it because …uni means you’re smart, really, really smart.  They feel that if you are going to uni, you are like a genius pretty much.

Similar to other FiF students we interviewed, Marlee’s decision to attend university is being witnessed by many onlookers. For FiF students this can often translate into an ‘invisible’ pressure to succeed. They are the pioneers in the community so if they fail then university can be regarded as even more ‘out of reach’ for others.

Marlee reflected at length about the influences that led to her decision to come to university and study nursing, which are primarily grounded in her family’s health concerns:

[With] my mum being very sick and a lot of health problems in the family, I’ve always been the carer in the family and I have that desire to help people in that respect. I really enjoy helping people but especially from the medical point and caring point of view. [But] …that was the biggest obstacle and it still is – just my emotional family life. Financially because we weren’t getting much money … we didn’t have a lot of food or anything like that so sometimes at uni or even in the HSC [Higher School Certificate], leading up to uni, we didn’t have a lot of food so I was running on empty sometimes. It’s just the chaos; my brother with his constant mental illness and we have problems getting him to school and I get involved. And my mum, she has health issues – she has really bad diabetes – and just stuff like that and because I get emotionally and physically involved, it can interfere with uni.

Attending university for Marlee is very much embedded in her family biography and her experiences as a carer have provided her with confidence and desire to pursue a career in a ‘caring profession’. Yet the obstacles she has encountered are manifold including limited finances, poverty and also family responsibilities. Despite these, Marlee is tenacious in her desire to complete her degree and has told her family that “You do realise that in a way, uni comes first”. While Marlee’s attendance at university is somewhat underscored by a sense of tentativeness and fragility, there is determination to succeed:

I start off with nothing but I … work hard. You know some people [are] born with a silver spoon in their mouth – I was born with nothing … and so I’ve worked my way here.

As Marlee reflected on her first semester, she spoke about the sense of pride she felt when her younger brother started to describe her as a nurse. The decision to come to university suggesting transformations, not only for Marlee but also, those closest to her:

…my eight year old brother is proud because he’s literally bragging to everyone that his sister’s a nurse … I think that makes him feel good going “Yes, my sister’s a nurse” so I think it might inspire him to do something bigger when it’s his turn. I don’t know what he’ll want to do but I definitely can be the support, you know.  If they ask me about uni I will only have good things to say so far.  Even though there are stressful times, I will only have really good things to say about uni… 

While Marlee’ story is unique, this narrative reflected themes I’ve heard many times over the years. Overall, these narratives emphasised the very real possibilities offered by university study but equally identified the substantial risks involved, not only for the individual, but also for others who were witnessing this educational journey.

As educators, clearing a space to hear such stories can provide a much deeper understanding of where our students have come from. Equally, sharing our own stories can assist in dispelling the myths of an ivory tower imaginary [15]. FiF students comprise over 50% of the Australian student population [14] and arrive at university without a significant other to guide or advise them. This does not mean that these students lack the necessary capital or knowledge to achieve, but simply the skills they have may be different to those required within a university program. Finally, being the FiF is also a cause for celebration (as Marlee so clearly indicated) and provides an opportunity for us to welcome students in a positive way rather than only defining them as ‘lacking’.

Note: Within Australia there are currently six nominated equity groups including those students from low socio-economic backgrounds, from rural or remote regions, from a non-English speaking background, students with a disability, Indigenous students and women studying in non-traditional areas.

For more information about the First-in-Family website go to:  http://www.firstinfamily.com.au/ where there is a suite of resources for learners, their families and educators. If you are interested in hearing more about Sarah’s project or getting involved, please register your interest on the website.

Sarah’s publications can be accessed from https://www.researchgate.net/home


  1. ABS. (2013, 2 October 2013). Hitting the books: Characteristics of higher education students. Australian Social Trends. Available from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features20July+2013
  2. Cervini, E. (2015). Women’s dominant numbers at uni are still concentrated in nursing, teaching. The Sydney Morning Herald (Nov, 2015). Available from http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/womens-dominant-numbers-at-uni-are-still-concentrated-in-nursing-teaching-20151026-gkikbe.html#ixzz4DPjghFO1
  3. O’Shea, S., (2016). Avoiding the manufacture of “sameness”: First-in-family students, cultural capital and the higher education environment. Higher Education. , 72(1), 59-78. Open Access: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10734-015-9938-y
  4. O’ Shea, S. (2007). Well I got here…but what happens next? Exploring the early narratives of first year female students who are the first in the family to attend university. Journal of Australian and New Zealand Student Services Association (29), 36-51.
  5. O’ Shea, S. (2015a). Arriving, Surviving and Succeeding:First-in-Family women and their experiences of transitioning into the first year of university. Journal of College Student Development. 56(5), 497 – 515.
  6. O’Shea, S., (2015b) “I generally say I am a Mum first… but I’m studying at uni”: The narratives of first in family, female caregivers moving into an Australian university. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. Vol 8(4), Dec, 243-257.
  7. O’ Shea, S. & Stone, C. (2011). Transformations and Self-Discovery: mature age women’s reflections on returning to university study. Studies in Continuing Education. 33(3), 273-289.
  8. O’Shea, S. & Stone, C. (2014). The Hero’s Journey: Stories of women returning to education. The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education. 5 (1), 79-91.
  9. Stone, C & O’Shea, S. (2012). Transformations and Self-Discovery: Women returning to study. Common Ground Publishing: Illinois USA.
  10. O’ Shea, S. (2011). Nomads in diaspora space – exploring women’s identity work in the university. Studies in the Education of Adults, 43 (1), 61-78
  11. O’ Shea, S. (2014). Transitions and Turning Points: How first in family female students story their transition to university and student identity formation. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 27(2), 135-158.
  12. O’Shea, S., May, J. & Stone, C. (2014). Breaking the Barriers: supporting and engaging mature age first-in-family university learners and their families. Office for Learning and Teaching Seed Project Grant.
  13. O’Shea, S., Harwood, V. & Chandler, P. (2015). ‘Getting students into uni is one thing, but how to keep them there? The Conversation (25 September, 2015). Available from: http://theconversation.com/getting-students-into-uni-is-one-thing-but-how-to-keep-them-there-47933
  14. Spiegler, T., & Bednarek, A. (2013). First-generation students: what we ask, what we know and what it means: An international review of the state of research. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 23(4), 318-337.
  15. May, J., Delahunty, J., O’Shea, S. & Stone, C. (in-press, 2016). Seeking the passionate career: First-in-family enabling students and the idea of the Australian university. Higher Education Quarterly



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