How First Generation Social Scientists Find Resources and Success in Undergraduate Research

May 6, 2022 - Katherine Denzin

Navigating college as a first generation student can be a difficult experience. Finding research opportunities can seem doubly as daunting, but through the Michigan State University College of Social Science, funding and support exists to make the process manageable.

“I have been doing research in a bunch of my classes,” said Zach Sebree, a first generation second-year student majoring in French and global history with minors in European studies, Italian and linguistics. “I've been involved in two 15-20 page long history research papers as well as research papers for French.”

Classes are a great way to start research in a controlled environment before pursuing other opportunities. “Beyond that, I am a research assistant on a psychology research project called Project ACT which is looking at ways to increase and improve access to HIV treatment [...] For that I am translating and transcribing.” Sebree is also beginning a documentation project on the eradication of smallpox which will include interviewing and writing about the general history.

For Sebree, the first generation experience is less of a hindrance and more of a different experience when compared to most students. “[It's] more like I make reports to my family rather than them ordering me to do certain things,” Sebree added.

Sebree paid close attention to his advisor’s emails and pursued any option that appeared before he secured his position in the psychology department. “It is just talking to professors and being willing to go and communicate with people outside of class,” he said about getting involved in research. “If you do have a professor that you do like and are interested in what they are doing then just going up and talking to them and seeing if they have something, or even if they don't, if they know someone who has something or they know someone who knows someone who knows someone who has a cousin who knows something.” 

Janet Ibarra, a first generation graduate of the class of 2021, explained the difficulties she faced while pursuing her undergraduate research. “Being a first generation student made starting research a very intimidating process,” she said. “I had some trouble really diving into the research because I would battle a lot of imposter syndrome throughout undergrad. However, having chosen a project that I was extremely passionate about pushed me to move forward, and I truly learned to love the process.”

“Throughout undergrad, I worked on my project titled, ‘How the Trump Presidency Has Affected Latinx Undergraduates,’” Ibarra continued. “This was a two-year long, mixed-method research project that required my commitment throughout most of my undergraduate years.”

Ibarra’s project won the first place prize of the Martin Luther King Jr. Advancing Inclusion through Research. Along with the University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum (UURAF), there are other prizes and grants for students involved in research.

The College of Social Science specifically has a grant called the First Generation Student Initiative which provides funds for first generation students involved in research. Other research grants such as the Provost Undergraduate Research Initiative (PURI) and the Dean’s Assistantship provides funding for projects for social science students participating in research. 

“I got a PURI for the smallpox project,” Sebree said. “My official research position is a paid position.” Other research opportunities are paid positions in the form of research assistants. 

Pursuing research is an achievable goal for undergraduates, but starting can be the hardest part. “Well it's an exciting adventure, you never know what might happen, what is around the corner,” Sebree said.

Through the College of Social Science, there is funding and research opportunities for students, regardless of generational status. Getting started on a new research journey in college can be intimidating, but by exploring the resources and finding a topic one is passionate about, undergraduate research is a feasible part of the MSU experience - for everyone!