The Role of Career Services in First-Gen Student Success
By Christine Albright
First-generation college students are usually defined as students whose parents matriculated, but never graduated with a bachelor’s degree and/or those students whose parents did not pursue higher education. First-generation students tend to come from lower income families and ethnic minority backgrounds which can place barriers in their path to success. These barriers put them at a disadvantage compared to their non-first generation counterparts (Pitre & Pitre, 2009). Some of those barriers include:
- Sense of not belonging
- Being underprepared academically and lack of study skills
- Lack of social/cultural capital
- Taking longer to choose a major
- Being more likely to work full time
- Having an almost nonexistent professional network
- Lack of role models and mentors to assist with navigating college and the career process.
First-generation college students usually benefit from additional support and guidance throughout their time in college. The Career Services Office sits in the perfect position to effectively assist first-generation college students in completing their degrees and obtaining post-graduate success. Purpose and direction can be found through career exploration and planning, and career counselors can help broaden horizons and possibilities by connecting students with experiential learning opportunities. The Career Services Office can also build student confidence through career-related educational events.
How Can Career Services Support First-Generation College Students?
Barrier: lack of support
Career service: mentoring
It is important to know that many first-generation college students receive less emotional, informational and financial support from their families at home. The deficiency in support is not always due to a lack of interest from the parental figure, but may be due to the fact that they lack the specific information and experience needed to assist the student. The Career Services Office staff must realize that first-generation college students may need additional support to understand the higher education environment, and the many career options available to them after graduation. They will need role models and mentors to help them through the career process.
The Career Services Office can help students find mentors by hosting networking events specifically for first-generation students, collaborating with departments or programs. For example, career practitioners at the University of Toledo worked with the Office of Multi-Cultural Student Success in hosting a two-part networking series. The first event was geared towards teaching students how to network and the second event was a round-table networking event where students could connect with employers and alumni. The students found this format less intimidating and reported they were able to establish some worthwhile connections.
Another tool that can be useful is utilizing online platforms to directly connect students and alumni. In addition to encouraging students to use free networking sites liked LinkedIn, the University of Toledo recently launched an online server called Rocket Connect, powered by Wisr, to provide a safe place for students and alumni to chat, message, and participate in discussion boards.
Barrier: lack of first-hand experiences
Career service: experiential learning connections
First-generation college students often lack the social network to help them connect with meaningful and relevant experiential learning opportunities. Therefore, they might miss out on first-hand experiences, causing the student to be less marketable upon graduation.
Career professionals understand that experiential learning is significant, as students are able to build on what they already know and make connections between what they have learned in the classroom and practical application. Through experiential learning, students can also work on developing transferable skills, thus making them more desirable to potential employers and graduate programs. As career services professionals, we must not only help first-generation students to search for such opportunities, but to help them understand the importance of them. For example, the University of Toledo is currently developing an internship preparation program that will walk students through the process of career exploration, resume building, networking and other tasks needed as they prepare to apply for internship opportunities. The key to building a successful program like this is to make sure to have departmental faculty and staff support. Instructors and advisors are essential when promoting experiential learning programs to students.
Barrier: lack of financial resources
Career service: offer online career opportunities
First-generation college students often lack sufficient funding to support themselves), increasing their need to work while attending college (First Generation Students, 2018). The necessity to work often leads to students missing out on educational opportunities on campus, including career-related workshops, networking events, and career fairs. Career professionals need to think of creative ways to reach out to first-generation students to help them receive valuable advice and education needed to be successful long-term financially and academically. The use of technology is a great way to reach those students who may be unable to attend traditional onsite Career Services events.
The Career Center at the University of Toledo utilizes several online platforms to provide access to career development tools 24/7. These services help students search for jobs, connect with alumni, practice interviewing, and find research opportunities and conferences. Finding the right platform for your student population is critical, and implementing such platforms gives students great access to services.
If not already doing so, career centers can also explore ideas such as creating an online space for career-related informational videos. This can be an especially effective strategy for conveying career information to Millennial and Generation Z students, who average nearly five and a half hours per day watching videos (The Nielson Company, 2019). You can also explore the idea of virtual career fairs or promoting micro-internships.
To successfully support first-generation college students, career professionals must fully understand their needs and how to communicate with them effectively. Through respect and sensitivity, career counselors can empower students to become successful.
First Generation Students-PNPI (2018, September 26). Retrieved from https://pnpi.org/first-generation-students/
Pitre, C. C., & Pitre, P. (2009). Increasing underrepresented high school students' college transitions and achievements. NASSP Bulletin, 93(2), 96-110.
The Nielson Company. (2019). The Nielsen total audience report (Q3 2018). Retrieved from https://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/corporate/us/en/reports-downloads/2019-reports/q3-2018-total-audience-report.pdf
Christine Albright, BSW, CCSP is a community advocate, and educator, and first-generation college student. She has worked with disadvantaged youth for more than 10 years. Currently, she is a Career Consultant at the University of Toledo, Toledo, OH. She may be reached at Christine.firstname.lastname@example.org.