Cristo Rey Jesuit High School & The University of St. Thomas | YPAR 2016 from storytech on Vimeo.

Youth-led Participatory Action Research (YPAR)

In 2016, a team of 14 first-generation students of color from The University of St. Thomas and Cristo Rey Jesuit High School-Twin Cities, along with their six faculty and staff mentors, formed a collaboration. Together, and thanks to a generous grant from Youthprise and Minnesota Campus Compact, they became researchers. Adopting a model of Youth-led Participatory Action Research (YPAR), they tackled questions of college access and success for first-generation college students with the goal of making positive change for first-generation students both here in Minnesota and across the country.

“Youth-led Participatory Action Research is an innovative approach to positive youth and community development based in social justice principles in which young people are trained to conduct systematic research to improve their lives, their communities, and the institutions intended to serve them” (Berkeley University,

What type of education and preparation do parents and families of first-generation college students need to best support their first-generation child?

  • Conducted Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) over a 12-month period.
  • Why did we choose applied research? To make concrete, positive change for first-generation students and their families!
  • Research team of 20, including 14 youth (16-23 year olds; first-gen HS students, college students, and a recent alum), and 6 faculty/staff, all from the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota and Cristo Rey Jesuit High School-Twin Cities.
  • The lived-experiences of our youth team confirmed what we found in the research literature: First-generation college students often face myriad challenges in college, are often less academically prepared, are disproportionally disadvantaged socioeconomically, and are often torn between commitments at home and school.
  • Used qualitative and quantiative approaches for collecting and anlyzing data.
    • Collected 388 usable surveys using Likert-type and open-ended questions from first-generation high school students, parents of first-gen high school students, and first-gen college students.
    • More than 95% of survey respondents were individauls of color.
    • Conducted 25 in-depth interviews, each with a person of color: 10 first-gen high school, 10 first-gen college students; and 5 parents of first-gen students.
    • Transcribed and analyzed over 132 pages of interview data.
    • Vast majority of those surveyed and interviewed were from low socioeconomic groups.
    • Data analysis approaches for surveys: statistical and summary analyses of survey data. For interview data: 5-step grounded theory, thematic analysis.

We invite you to view our entire 44-page final report, linked above. The quick summary is offered here:

We identified nine primary themes and 12 subthemes, the majority pointing to the way first-gen students and their families experience a unique “first-gen reality.” Our youth team recommends the development of programs for students and their parents that explicitly address and support the first-gen unique reality at various levels: colleges and universities, high schools, middle schools and community partners. We believe all constituents can and should do more to address the first-gen reality explicitly by developing unique, first-gen-sensitive programs for students and their families. Among our many findings:

  • First-gen college students and high school students know there is a hidden curriculum and learn quickly they have to make up for not having/knowing it.
  • First-gen college students and high school students know they will work twice as hard to make similar gains as their first-gen, majority peers.
  • First-gen college students possess wisdom emerging from their lived experiences as first-gen students and first-gen daughters/sons and want to share advice based on those experiences with other first-gen parents and students!
  • First-gen college students say they wish their parents knew more/understood more about their college experiences so they could better support them during the college transition and throughout their college journey.
  • First-gen high school students, often based on their own culturally specific realities, are uniquely linked to their families in the college process. They recognize theirfamily connection is often different from their second-gen peers.
  • First-gen high school students need specific types of technical support in the college preparation process and repeatedly note how significantly they benefit from excellent college-prep courses, college-prep programs, and college-prep non-profit organizations.
  • First-gen high school students need much more information about financial aid and college affordability than most of their second-gen peers; they report their families/parents often lack knowledge specifically about scholarships, financial support, and budgeting.
  • First-gen high school students report that, without question, affordability is they key factor for first-generation high school students when choosing which college to apply to or attend.
  • Parents of first-gen students articulate two strong fears: the financial reality of college, and the wellbeing of their child and his/her feeling of inclusiveness when at college.
  • Parents of first-gen students want significantly more knowledge and information; want it in multiple formats (on-line and in-person); and need/want it in their primary language.
  • Parents of first-gen students believe, unlike some of the literature suggests, their child/ren going to college won’t negatively affect their family’s sense of connection or family’s daily functioning, and that parents must provide unconditional encouragement and support about college regardless of their own education level, knowledge, or experience.
  • Parents of first-gen students hold strong, positive beliefs about college creating a good future for their child/ren.
  • Cool Video (displayed above): We created a dynamic, educational, and inspiring 5-minute video summarizing our research findings, sharing our team’s story, and highlighting a few of our key recommendations. The video is designed for multiple audiences: first-gen parents and students, faculty, staff and education advocates of all kinds—anyone who wants to better support first-gen students and their families. Please share with anyone you believe can learn something or better support first-generation college students!
  • Action Recommendations: We articulate more than a dozen specific recommendations for ways communities, schools, and colleges/universities can better support first-gen students and their families through programs, each emerging from our specific data points in the full report linked above.
  • Presentations and workshops! The youth and faculty/staff leaders on our YPAR team are available to do workshops and/or to speak to educational institutions or communities wanting to make change. Please contact us - we’d love to talk to you and your group or school!