‘She’s like, “you’re a uni student now”’: The influence of mother–daughter relationships on the constructions of learner identities of first-in-family girls

Sarah McDonald


Wider life trajectories, including educational journeys, are influenced by both social class and gender. Within Australia, the Review of Australian Higher Education (Bradley, Noonan, Nugent, & Scales, 2008) initiated by the Australian government has become the catalyst for federal aims to widen participation in higher education. According to the Bradley Review, there is a commitment in Australia to improve the educational outcomes of students who have a disability, who arc Indigenous, female (in non-tradi-tional degrees), from non-English-speaking backgrounds, from rural areas or who are from low-socio-economic backgrounds to attend higher education. However, despite policies to widen participation in education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the take-up of university places for girls with low socio-economic status (SES)1 remains below that of girls from other socio-economic cohorts in Australia (National Centre for Vocational Education Research, 2018). Research continues to illustrate the variety of barriers which impede efforts to widen participation. Social class is a contested term in Australia and is routinely misrecognised, and yet it is a determining factor in the lives of young Australians (Kenway, 2013). Working-class students may hold an attitude that university is not for them due to lacking knowledge of the ‘system’ (Archer & Yamashita, 2003; Reay, Crozier, & Clayton, 2009; Smith, 2011). O’Shea (2014), a leader in the study of first-in-family (FIF) experience in Australia, argues that FIF students often hold specific cultural ideals and understandings of the self which may not seem compatible with the cultural and learning environments of universities. This chapter seeks to explore this phenomenon and make a contribution to working-class girlhood, intcrgcncrational relationships and the FIF experience.

Research on young women has emphasised the way they seek to position themselves as without the gendered barriers of the past (Baker, 2010; Harris, 2010). Bowers-Brown (2019) has written about the ‘supergirl’ who is acutely aware of the ‘high’ aspirations expected for the upwardly socially mobile. In her more recent work on working-class girls’ aspirations,

Bowers-Brown (2019) suggests that the ‘expectation that all girls will embody supergirl aspirations misrecognises the differences in privilege that create an uneven platform to achieve this subjectivity and for many this may involve self-adaptation’ (p. 157). Researching in Australia, McLeod and Yates (2006) found that young Australian women feel a certain responsibility to succeed by comparing and contrasting their own experiences with that of their mothers. They assert that the ‘association of femininity with success destabilises understandings of the conventional successes expected to flow to men, but also raises questions about how young women will themselves negotiate the imperatives to be successfill, to be their own person’ (p. 107). Keeping in mind both class and gender, what remains largely unexplored is the extent to which girls in Australia, who would be considered FIF, experience education and futures differently from previous generations. Such an exploration involves consideration of significant changes regarding what higher education has come to be in Australia today as well as how the gendering of aspiration both advances and remains the same.

Drawing on feminist scholarship (Skeggs, 1997, 2004; Rcay, 2018b; McLeod & Yates, 2006; Walkerdinc, Lucey, & Melody, 2001) regarding the lived experience of class, this chapter explores how two FIF young women incorporate the classed and gendered experiences of their mothers into their subjectivities as they transition from secondary school into their first year of university. The experiences of working-class girls, intcrgcncrational relationships and aspirations have received limited attention in studies of widening participation; rather, dominant constructions of girls position them as the success story of a ‘feminised’ education system. An important factor in how FIF girls construct their learner identities in higher education is the motherdaughter relationship, specifically the mother’s unrealised aspirations which are placed upon their daughters. The chapter begins with a brief outline of working-class experiences of education with a focus on the Australian context. This is followed by a consideration of the importance of family as a site of meaning-making and fostering aspirations where the focus is on motherhood, specifically working-class motherhood and education. The chapter then presents its theoretical tools before recounting the research methodology. Then the stories of two FIF young women, Chloe and Ella, are presented. The aim of the comparative case study is to further an understanding of the mother-daughter relationship which contributes significantly to how both these young women make sense of their subjective and social position-ings as they become consumers of, and performers within, the future-focused space of universities.

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