Gardner studies the first-generation doctoral student experience in the context of social justice in higher education, particularly those underrepresented populations with less social and economic capital. She also is interested in the “pre-K–20 pipeline,” investigating the structures and people in schools that encourage students to pursue higher education.
In her social justice research, Gardner looks at the first-generation students’ social capital — the kinds of networks they can access. For instance, students in families or communities in which the college experience is commonplace have more social capital and, therefore, know more implicitly how higher education works. Limited social capital is often related to less economic and cultural capital.
For second- and third-generation college students, the decision to pursue higher education often is an expectation they understand early in life.
“I’m looking at implicit and explicit messages that students get — and don’t get. What are we doing at the federal, state and community levels to inform students and families about how higher education works? Some of it has to do with stepping back and understanding how we know what we know, and ensuring that others learn it as well.”
Gardner takes a social constructivist approach in her research, interviewing the first-generation students still in graduate school to explore their perceptions of the Ph.D. experience, including attrition. Previous studies on doctoral student attrition focused on those students who had already dropped out of their programs.
For Gardner, who also is a first-generation college graduate, the students’ poignant stories about their Ph.D. experiences ring true. She remembers thinking she wanted to pursue a doctorate because she liked working in higher education (student affairs, at the time) and “a Ph.D. sounded interesting.”
“But I had no idea what it meant as a first-generation doctoral student. I didn’t know how research worked,” says Gardner, whose dissertation in 2005 at Washington State University focused on the socialization and disciplinary perspectives of doctoral student success.
As an undergrad, Gardner remembers her mother questioning the need to fill out FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. “She thought it was a scam, because on her cognitive map of the world, there’s no free money,” Gardner says.
One graduate student Gardner interviewed told about her mother’s reaction to getting the FAFSA notification of a financial aid award: Now that the family got this money, there was no need to go to college.
“We’re coming from generations that asked why go to college when there are jobs at the mill with retirement,” says Gardner. “Now that we’ve moved from that economy, how do we change that understanding of the options?”
Image Description: Painting by Mackenzie Rainey