When the Family Goes to College: How Black Students Juggle Tensions Between Home and School
Yolanda Wiggins

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of Massachusetts

Primary Discipline

While researchers have documented the numerous structural barriers Black college students encounter throughout the educational system, researchers have not adequately investigated the role that the family and family obligations play in the higher education process. The proposed dissertation focuses on these familial relationships. I argue that Black students’ responsibilities to their mothers, fathers, and other extended and fictive kin create tradeoffs they must navigate as they try to juggle the demands of college with ongoing demands from family. To assess the involvement of families in the lives of college students, this dissertation will include three tiers: the first two are 51 in-depth interviews with Black undergraduates and 50 in-depth interviews with their mothers, in which I will examine both students’ and their mother’s accounts of interactions, the kinds of support exchanged, and expectations about college and family ties; the third tier includes 33 in-depth interviews with college personnel to provide and institutional perspective on the ways in which these offices interact with families and shape policy to address their concerns. My research questions are: 1) What do college students give to their families and how do they understand their familial expectations, responsibilities, and the support they give to kin? 2) What do families give to students and how do they perceive college demands and their children’s familial responsibilities? 3) To what extent and in what ways are college personnel assisting Black families? 4) How do these patterns vary by class and gender among Black college students? 5) How do such exchanges – from students to families and from families to students – affect college success and family dynamics? Preliminary findings suggest Black students’ commitment to collective, familial, and individual goals reinforces inequality in a college context that remains unresponsive to those demands. This dissertation offers a critique of standard views of the family and demonstrates a need for expanding our understanding of the strategies and institutional mechanisms that colleges can employ to better support increasingly diverse Black families as a way to ensure student engagement.
About Yolanda Wiggins
Yolanda Wiggins is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She received her B.A. in Political Science and Women’s Studies from West Virginia University. Her research interests center on family, higher education, and race, with a focus on how Black college students engage in a balancing act of academic responsibilities and family obligations. To assess the involvement of families in the lives of college students, her dissertation triangulates three sets of data: in-depth interviews with Black undergraduate men and women, their mothers who act as links to other kin, and college personnel, who are on the “front line” interacting with families, in a wide-range of on-campus offices to obtain an institutional perspective on the ways such offices either bridge the gap or separate families, students, and the university. Her research suggests that both family and college sometimes act as ‘greedy institutions,’ central to class production and reproduction projects, pulling students in different directions—the collective responsibilities to family may hinder the college experience, but at the same time, the college experience may hinder the fulfillment of family obligations. Her dissertation, publications, and presentations capture how family involvement often leads to an uneven playing field for students in higher education and how that process varies by race and class. She addresses policy suggestions on the ways post-secondary institutions can create a more equitable environment for underserved students and their families. Yolanda is a native of Washington, D.C. and a former Ronald E. McNair Scholar.

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