Research Finds Some First-Generation Students Experience 'Survivor Guilt'

UA undergraduate researcher Jackson Wray found that certain first-generation students experience "survivor guilt" because they may be experiencing opportunities not available to their families back home.
Nov. 20, 2009
UA undergraduate researcher Jackson Wray
UA undergraduate researcher Jackson Wray

Survivor guilt has long been used to describe the experience of some Nazi Germany concentration camp survivors or people whose lives were spared in the event of a wreck or natural disaster while others perished. 

In pilot studies at the University of Arizona, student researchers have applied the concept to the higher education sector in an attempt to understand feelings of isolation, disloyalty and guilt that some successful first-generation students report. 

Jackson Wray, a UA senior studying psychology, spent the summer months surveying nearly 140 traditional and first-generaiton students.

Wray presented his project, "Survivor Guilt in the Academic Domain: An Educational and Psychological Perspective," this month during the UA Graduate and Professional Student Council's Student Showcase.

During his investigation, Wray found that college experiences – such as living on campus with access to a range of resources – leave some feeling as though they have an undeserving advantage over their families.

Wray's research earned him a first place undergraduate award during the showcase. He also received an honorable mention for the President's Award, which is donated by UA President Robert N. Shelton's office and goes to graduate and undergraduate students who "exemplify outstanding academic research and community service."

"When applied to the academic domain, 'survivor guilt' refers to the negative feelings that can arise from having succeeded and escaped adverse conditions when close others – for example, parents or siblings – have not," said Wray, also a UA Ronald E. McNair Achievement Program scholar. 

"What was more striking when I began doing the research was when I began studying college status and ethnicity together," he said. 

Wray found that ethnicity wasn't a strong factor among white students and students of color when their parents were college-educated.

However, students of color were the most likely to experience survivor guilt if they were first-generation students. Yet, Wray found that while ethnicity is important, first-generation students in general experience difficulties. "However," he added, "there is not a doubt that minority first-generation college students have the most disadvantages." 

These feelings, Wray said, have the potential to lead to adverse academic and psychological consequences for some students, which is why additional research is required. He said the research may have important implications for education-based interventions and support services, particularly for first-generation students of color.

Generally, survivor guilt has been studied in populations that include war veterans and individuals whose co-workers had been laid off. Applying the concept to student experiences in higher education is rare.

"It's very much like a construct that depends on the ways it is being applied," Wray said. "But it remains relevant and still holds weight."

Wray collaborated with UA doctoral degree candidate Rebecca Covarrubias, a graduate student in the UA's social psychology program who served as his graduate mentor. 

Covarrubias also has studied survivor guilt, previously focusing on Hispanic and white students as a member of the Culture Collaboratory. The laboratory is headed up by Stephanie A. Fryberg, an assistant professor in the psychology department.

She also presented research during the Student Showcase, earning a first place graduate student award for her project, "The Impact of Self-Relevant Role Models on School Belonging for Underrepresented Native American Students." 

Covarrubias, who has worked with Wray for more than one year, is attemtping to publish the paper she co-authored with Fryberg and Andrea Romero, an assistant professor in the Mexican American Studies & Research Center. Her findings were comparable to Wray's. 

"Right now, we're trying to parse out what contexts can alleviate or exacerbate survivor guilt," said Covarrubias, who also was a McNair Scholar. "We want to determine what alleviates the guilt so that we may begin to develop interventions."

The study's findings struck a personal chord with Wray, who is a first-generation student of color who is from Arivaca, Ariz.

"I began to see this concept in myself," he said. 

While he did acknowledge that additional research is necessary to further understand survivor guilt among varying student populations, his findings indicate clear implications.

"This it so important to let people know that these feelings do exist for some students," Wray said.

"It is so new in the educational domain, but this needs to be made known to faculty, administrators and staff," he said. "I think that just being able to identify what this is will help alleviate these feelings."