Digest No. 04 - June 2018

Redirecting Work as Learning? Helping First-Generation Latino Students Succeed

Nuñez, A. M., and V. A. Sansone. 2016. “Earning and Learning: Exploring the Meaning of Work in the Experiences of First-Generation Latino College Students.” The Review of Higher Education 40 (1): 91–116.


“I like to work a lot of hours because it actually helps me to concentrate on school.… So it gives me more focus and it helps me manage my time better.” (p. 104)

How might work offer distinctive opportunities for Latino first-generation college students to acquire the skills and resources needed to navigate successfully in the often confusing college environment? Although this case study examines a sample of students from a large public institution, the authors carefully craft an argument that may be of relevance to the CIC community.

Most research on working college students has employed quantitative methods to examine how working a certain number of hours per week affects students’ educational outcomes. This qualitative study, by contrast, addresses how first-generation college-going Latino students make meaning of their experiences working for pay during college. Grounded in the critical work of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural reproduction (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977) and Pusser’s (2010) conceptualization of work as a means for spurring student success, this study, based on interviews with Latino students from first-generation college-going backgrounds, provides insights about how employment during college can offer benefits beyond financial support to these students.


The results of this study suggest three conclusions. First, these students come to college with a particular family orientation toward work that involves strong support for students’ pursuit of postsecondary education, cultural assets that serve the students well in their college careers, and encouragement to pursue higher-status work. Second, work can offer these students opportunities to cultivate various forms of capital beyond financial capital. These resources include human, social, cultural, and navigational capitals. Third, certain kinds of paid employment during college can expose these students to new work experiences that can be more intrinsically rewarding than those their family members have experienced.


CIC implications include the importance of structuring on-campus work opportunities—both Federal Work Study (FWS) appointments and non-FWS positions—that enable students, especially those from low-income and first-generation backgrounds, to expand their skill sets, build a sense of community on campus, and learn about careers that they might want to pursue. Careful partnerships with community employers may help first-generation Latino students curate a sense of purpose that their families appreciate and that can help them understand the perceived cryptic messages (e.g., elusive administrative processes involved with financial aid) that campus educators attempt to clarify for their first-time students.

As CIC members continue to balance often-competing goals to make college affordable while remaining economically viable, casting work as a potential opportunity for students to learn and, when necessary, make money—especially for first-generation Latino students—might be an important step for recruiting and retaining these students. Educators often have concerns regarding college students’ expressions of stress and fatigue related to balancing work and school. This article suggests that work may help alleviate some of the stress of college-going, especially for this group of students.

About the Authors

Anne-Marie Nuñez is associate professor in the department of educational studies at the Ohio State University.

Vanessa A. Sansone is assistant professor of higher education in the department of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Bourdieu, P., and J. C. Passeron. 1977. Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Pusser, B. 2010. “Of a Mind to Labor: Reconceptualizing Student Work and Higher Education.” In Understanding the Working College Student: New Research and Its Implications for Policy and Practice, edited by L. W. Perna, 134–154. Sterling, VA: Stylus.