Santa Clara University

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Santa Clara University

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Story in the College of Arts & Sciences

Nichols photo

Laura Nichols

Associate Professor, Sociology
At a glance:

Sociologist lets students ride the city bus, the whole length of its trip, to study firsthand changes in social strata.

Laura Nichols tells her students to get on the bus—literally. The associate professor of sociology has members of her Social Stratification class ride the No. 22 Valley Transit Authority bus from San Jose through Palo Alto to get a sense of the range of communities around Santa Clara.

The assignment is to take field notes on who is on the bus, what the area looks like. "Neighborhoods change a lot from Palo Alto to San Jose. I advise them to look for symbolic things: clothes, interactions, cars, quality of streets and signage."

Nichols studies social and cultural capital and how these factors create symbolic boundaries between social classes. Social capital describes how valuable your network is: "If your parents have a college degree," Nichols says, "you are highly likely to have gotten help from them when applying to college and even securing internships or jobs. First generation college students often must do these things on their own."

Cultural capital refers to exposure to what is considered "high culture" in society such as art and leisure activities.

"I'm interested in how students can cross these symbolic boundaries and what that does to their identities. First-generation students tend to respond in one of three ways: they figure out how to live in what can feel like two worlds, some try to forget the past, and a few reject the ways of the upper class," she says.

"I see students who come to Santa Clara, they're the first in their families to go to college, and this school feels very wealthy. They say to me, 'People are talking to me about things I've never experienced—about seeing artwork in a museum in Italy. And I've never been out of San Jose.'"

One of Nichols's projects was to collect and edit the autobiographies of first-generation college students at Santa Clara. For that, and her pedagogy of the bus, she was honored with the Brutocao Award for Curriculum Innovation from the Brutocao Family Foundation.

Her research with and stories by first-generation college students have also helped inform support programs.

"Nationally, first-generation students have a very high dropout rage from college—though fortunately this isn't the case for Santa Clara," Nichols says. "I hope to add to our understanding of how social and cultural factors contribute to success as well as mitigate failure by changing institutions and providing effective programs."

She's hoping her work will help those pioneering students stay on the path to earning their degrees.

Read autobiographies of first-generation college students.

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