Giving Students a Voice: Learning Through Autobiography

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2004


National Education Association


“In writing my story I was at first uncomfortable about people knowing that my family and I depended on welfare and about our present living situation. But I realize that I need to tell my complete story so that other students experiencing similar things will not be ashamed of their own backgrounds.” In the Social Stratification course I teach, students write journal entries exploring the connections between concepts introduced in class and their own lives. What students express in these journal entries is sometimes more effective in illustrating course concepts than the course readings. First-generation college students, like the student quoted above, are particularly able to make such connections.1 These students understand that race, class, and gender intersect in complex ways to affect people’s lives. They describe being squeezed between working class and middle/upper class values and expectations; they notice how opportunity and privilege—sometimes very subtly—structure experience, and what it means when assets and resources are only available to some. They identify barriers and contradictions in the university system that make it difficult to fulfill their dreams and become a part of the college community. Both insiders and outsiders, pushed and pulled, they provide insight into the assumptions and purposes of higher education by talking about what it is like to be on the margins of the university.