Black newborn lambs graze under trees with white blossoms next to the converted farmhouse. In the back garden, a neighbour is getting two donkeys and a small carriage ready to make their usual rounds. Normally, Hay Keijsers (68) would go with him, but today he is sat in the living room with his wife Mien Keijsers (67) at their home in the village of Horst in Limburg. Mien sets a few slices of Limburg cherry pie out on the table. The windowsill is adorned with family photos of their three daughters who grew up here, including Loes Keijsers (40), professor of Youth and Family at Erasmus University.
I came here not just for journalistic purposes, but for personal reasons too. Like my own father and mother, Hay and Mien are parents of three first-generation university students. Unlike their children, they did not attend higher professional education or university. Last year, I spoke to my father, a carpenter, about what it was like for him when all three of his children went into higher education. It was only a brief conversation, with my father sitting awkwardly on the couch in my old room at my parents’ house. “You know this makes me nervous, don’t you?”, he said, when I pressed the start button for the audio recording.
Beyond the borders of the Netherlands
Whether he was just nervous because of the recording or because of the topic of conversation, either way it made me even more curious about the perspective of parents of first-generation students.
Thanks to recent studies, we know that first-generation students generally experience a harder time at university or a university of applied sciences, says Jana Vietze, associate professor of Youth and Family at Erasmus University. She believes that although these students are often highly motivated and adapt well to new circumstances, they are often more uncertain about their academic skills, feel less at home in an academic environment and are more likely to experience feelings of depression and stress.
But what is it like for parents when their child goes off to university or a university of applied sciences, a world that is completely unfamiliar to them? Do they run into certain problems as well, and how do they feel about that?
To find a scientific answer to these questions, I not only have to look beyond the borders of Erasmus University, but those of the Netherlands – almost no research has been done on this topic here. A few scholars at the university have pointed me to an American study carried out by Casandra Harper (and colleagues), associate professor of Higher Education at the University of Missouri. She examined the ways in which parents of first-generation students are involved with their children during their student days at college in the US, which is most similar to Dutch higher professional education and, in some cases, university.
Because so little research has been done on this topic, EM spoke to eight parents for background purposes. Not all parents are featured in this article, their experiences have been used as background information. In two portrait articles, which will be published alongside this article, first-generation students discuss this issue with their parents.
“Parents are incredibly excited and full of pride when their child goes to college”, Harper says. ‘Proud’ is also the first word that comes to Hay and Mien’s mind when they think back to when their daughters went to university. And it’s not just them: all the parents EM spoke to say they are especially proud of their children. “I think it’s remarkable if you’re able to learn better than most other people”, my father said last year.
Some even feel vicarious joy, Harper adds. “Many parents in my study were not able to attend higher education, but nevertheless wanted to”, she explains. “They are very happy that their child does get to have that experience.”
Born in the wrong time
Several parents EM spoke to said they would have liked to pursue higher education. Mothers in particular reported being born in the wrong time – and sometimes place. So did Mien, who grew up in a farming family in the small village of Veulen in Limburg. After boarding school, her parents wanted to send her to a school for home economics. “My parents believed that women should take care of the household and that’s it.”
But because of her high grades, she went to secondary technical school. She eventually started a large modern mushroom farm with Hay, who also grew up in a farming family and went to agricultural school, where she was responsible for keeping the books. “I would have loved to go to university back then, but that wasn’t common for women in the village at the time.”
It did lead to Mien encouraging her daughters to go to university. “We told them: do something you’re good at and you enjoy. There should be no distinction between men and women”, she says. “I am very proud that my daughters did go to university.”
University is uncharted territory for many parents of first-generation students. It made Sita Baldew (55), the mother of Rashmi (21), a master’s student in Media and Creative Studies, feel apprehensive at first. “I was a bit nervous about my daughter going to university because it was unfamiliar to me”, she says. Sita herself trained as a secondary school teacher in her native Suriname and worked in a childcare centre in the Netherlands. “It was new for her – but for me, too.”
First-generation student Rashmi engages in conversation with her mother: ‘I never realised that you were even more nervous than I was’
Master's student Rashmi is the first in her family to attend university. It was a…
The novelty makes it difficult to help their children navigate university. Harper: “Parents who have attended higher education know the system better, which allows them to help their children find the right people and points of contact, for example.” The lack of such information in someone’s social environment can make students feel less at home at university, says associate professor Vietze.
It is especially difficult for parents from migrant backgrounds to help their children with this aspect, says Rick Wolff, a researcher at Risbo. He previously conducted research on the academic success of students with a migration background in the Netherlands, which also focused on first-generation students. “These parents are often even less familiar with the Dutch higher education system.”
Harper believes that not being able to provide support can lead to frustration and sadness. “I couldn’t help my daughter when she was at university because I didn’t know anything about it”, says Sita. “I found that frustrating.”
Financial and mental support
Almost all parents who spoke to EM pay the tuition fees and make monthly transfers, and many of them encourage their children to study very hard.
The fact that parents of first-generation university students do their best to help their children during their studies where possible is equally demonstrated by Harper and Wolff’s studies. Their support consists mainly of financial and mental support. “By providing mental support, parents help their children get the best out of themselves”, Wolff says. This involves motivating their children in studying, as well as giving them love and empathy. According to Wolff, parents from migrant backgrounds, in particular, place a strong emphasis on strong performance. “They came to the Netherlands for a better life and want the same for their children.”
But Mien and Hay also stress the importance of studying hard. “Our daughters used to have to work hard at our mushroom farm”, says Hay. “They had to be better than other students working there.” Mien: “They inherited the ethic of hard work from us – and we got it from our parents.” Hay: “No nonsense.”
They remind me of my father, who has been doing heavy physical labour since he was 19, likes to work a lot, and always told my brothers and me to study hard. He would always say that it would be worth it.
Professor Loes Keijsers, Hay and Mien’s daughter, identifies with the conclusions of the studies. She never quite felt at home at her study programme. But her work ethic, which she owes to her parents, has taken her far. “Entrepreneurship, hard work, perseverance and working well with others is what I learned at the farm”, she says. “Those are very good qualities that suit my job as a professor.”
First-generation student Romy owes her parents a lot. ‘I’m so lucky to have you’
Romy didn’t mind that her parents didn’t know much about the university or her degree…
Above all, parents care about their children’s well-being. “If we felt that our daughters were working too hard, for example, we’d express our concerns about that”, says Mien. “But we never told them what to do, because we felt it was important for them to make their own choices.”
Most parents of first-generation students expect their children to make independent choices and find their way in higher education, says Harper. “They encourage their children to solve their own problems.”
And so Sita left all university-related choices to her daughter. “It also takes the burden off me, because I can’t give her proper help with any of this”, she says. “For example, I wouldn’t tell her to choose a certain programme if I didn’t know what it entailed, would I?”
Harper says that parents who did pursue higher education seem more involved in this regard. “Research seems to indicate that the more intrusive forms of parenting are more common in wealthier and more privileged families, which is associated with being more educated.”An example of this is ‘helicopter parents’: parents who are very involved in their children’s lives, but sometimes also keep too close an eye on them and try to solve problems before their children have had a chance to take action.
“How do you raise independent people when mum and dad tell you what to do?”, says Mien. “We always used to say that our company was like a ship. If you don’t take decisions yourself, you float and go backwards. The same goes for a career.”
Loes Keijsers liked her parents’ emphasis on autonomy. “It made me realise: this is my career pathway, I’ve got to make it work. The degree won’t just fall into my lap. I’m proud to have done it all on my own.”
Mien walks over to the window just as the neighbour drives the two donkeys back into the big garden. The windowsill is filled with photos of her three daughters over the years, from weddings and holidays to Loes’ inaugural lecture at the university. She shows me the pictures, brimming with pride. “They’re doing great.”