Chasing a Passion: The Early-Career Lived Experience of First-Generation College Graduates

Open Access
Olson, Joann S.
Graduate Program:
Adult Education
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 03, 2010
Committee Members:
  • Fred Michael Schied, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Fred Michael Schied, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Gary Kuhne, Committee Member
  • Melody M Thompson, Committee Member
  • Dr Spencer G Niles, Committee Member
  • situated learning
  • workplace learning
  • first-generation college graduate
  • adult education
  • college-to-work transition
  • communities of practice
  • phenomenology
First-generation college students (students whose parents have not earned at least a bachelor’s degree) graduate at significantly lower rates than their peers, even when controlling for background characteristics such as race, socioeconomic status, pre-college academic preparation, and so on. Although the challenges and experiences of first-generation college students have been well documented, little has been written, in either higher education or adult education literature, about the work-related experiences of first-generation college graduates. This qualitative, phenomenological study sought to describe the lived experience of six early-career first-generation college graduates. Participants had graduated between two and five years prior to the study, were working full time, and had attended college as traditional-aged students. Data were collected through in-depth, semi-structured interviews and analyzed using phenomenological methods of data analysis, reflection, and writing. Four themes were identified in the college-to-work transition of participants: learning on the job, being in the job, releasing the past, and chasing a passion. Learning on the job highlights participants’ efforts to acquire and master the skills required by their current occupations from a situated learning perspective, specifically participants’ experiences of work-related communities of practice. Being on the job deals with participants’ attempts to incorporate aspects of self and identity into their work—including ideas of work ethic and “being a good employee.” Releasing the past is used to describe the challenge of renegotiating relationships with family and culture of origin, including the struggle to define “real work.” Participants spoke of current and future career plans and hopes in terms of chasing a passion—identifying tensions between the necessity of providing for one’s own needs and the deep desire to be engaged in work that is personally meaningful.