Working-class Students at University

11:00am -12:00pm
Friday, March 1st, 2024
Social Science Centre 5220

Presentation 1: Wolfgang Lehmann (Department of Sociology, Western University)

Title: Going the Distance: Benefits and challenges of a long-term study of working-class, first-in-family university students


This short presentation draws on experiences gained in a 16-year qualitative study of the experiences of working-class students who were the first in their family to attend university. Although the study suffered from attrition and analysis was complicated because it became increasingly difficult to understand the data through any one theoretical or conceptual framework, this complexity also offered the opportunity for a more nuanced approach, to become reassured in earlier interpretations, and to correct past misinterpretations. Their long-term commitment to the research project led many of the participants to articulate benefits they gained from being in the study for 16 years. The opportunity to tell their stories and have their experiences as first-in-family students validated was something they identified as especially important and valuable to them. QLR thus offers unique benefits that are not possible in cross-sectional research.

Presentation 2: Sabine Weiss (Doctoral Student, Vienna University of Economics and Business)

Title: Sense of Belonging of Working-Class Students at University


Educational inequalities remain a global concern, with one significant contributing factor being the perpetuation of family legacies of educational success. This presentation focuses on a specific equity group in higher education (HE): working-class students who lack the benefit of prior family experiences in higher education. Drawing on Bourdieu's concepts of capital and habitus, this presentation aims to shed light on the role that social class background plays in the experiences of students at Austrian state-funded universities. A particular focus is on how the working-class students developed a sense of belonging at the university.

To further explore this topic, a qualitative research design was chosen. 19 problem-centered interviews with working-class students at state-funded Austrian universities were conducted. The students were in different stages of their studies.

The findings show that the interviewed students were ambivalent about their sense of belonging to the campus community. The development of a sense of belonging usually starts with the students' desire at the beginning of their studies.

Friendships with peers and relationships with university staff facilitate fitting in at the university. The university itself also has a responsibility to provide institutional support (e.g. through onboarding programs). Some of the interviewees reported a shock after the school system, as they had to change their learning habitus and the way they negotiated between existing and new expectations and norms. Overall, the findings highlight that the habitus of working class students is complex and they need support to develop a sense of belonging at university.


The Sociology Colloquium Series, brought to you by the Department of Sociology and the Social Science Student Donation Fund, is open to the public, students and scholars of any discipline.