CSU Fullerton Program Empowers First-Gen Students to Create Their Own Social Capital

August 8, 2023 | By Kevin Gray

Award-Winning Programs
CSU Fullerton employees pose with their NACE Award.

TAGS: best practices, career development, career readiness, first generation, Internships, mentoring, nace award winner, nace insights, program development,

California State University – Fullerton (CSU Fullerton), a Hispanic Serving Institution, designed its “I Am First” program to teach first-generation students how to create social capital through a high-impact, scaffolded curriculum that empowers students to cultivate agency in their career search.

“Teaching first-generation Latinx students how to intentionally and proactively develop professional relationships from scratch to land internships and jobs is a life-enhancing skill that improves student post-college outcomes, self-confidence, social mobility, and return on investment,” explains Stephanie Reyes, senior associate director of CSU Fullerton’s career center.

Additionally, Reyes says, the I Am First program aims to address and change the narrative that first-gen college students are at a disadvantage.

“Instead,” she notes, “the program focuses on helping students adapt an asset-based mindset to recognize their strengths and equip them with lifelong tools to be successful in their career and academic experiences.”

California State University – Fullerton is the large-college winner of the 2023 NACE Award for Career Services Excellence for its “I Am First” program. For more information about the NACE Awards program and the full list of award winners/honorable mentions, see www.naceweb.org/about-us/nace-awards/.

Program Goals

I Am First addresses and closes two equity gaps that underrepresented students encounter as first-generation college students:

  • A sense of belonging and navigating the job-search process through community-building.
  • Career development to provide students with the tools and confidence to reach out to professionals for advice.

“The term ‘networking’ often induces students’ anxiety and imposter syndrome, which is why many students actively push it off,” Reyes explains.

“Therefore, encouraging and intentionally teaching students at CSU Fullerton how to strategically increase their social capital helps increase their career exploration, self-confidence, professional communication skills, and likelihood to land an internship or job.”

The objectives for the program have evolved since the program’s launch in spring 2020. The program’s overall objective is to provide a transformative career preparation experience for first-generation college students through connection with their peers, employer and alumni communities, and program facilitators.

In addition, career center staff have added new objectives through its assessment processes and determined how the I Am First program can provide both a high-impact experience and prepare students for their future careers. The program’s core objectives are to:

  • Provide a career and personal development curriculum tailored to the first-generation college student experience.
  • Foster a sense of belonging and community amongst first-generation college students and their peers.
  • Connect students in the program with first-generation alumni of CSU Fullerton to help students build their social and aspirational capital.
  • Match each student in the program with a mentor who identifies as a first-generation graduate professional, preferably CSU Fullerton alumni to expose students to the benefits of a mentor relationship.
  • Provide students with a tangible guide to building their social capital and accessing the hidden job market through a collaboration with the Career Launch Academy.

“This program is unique for our campus and the CSU system,” Reyes says.

“Most first-generation programming is offered through programs like the educational opportunity program and first-year experience. Therefore, we aim to be intentional in tailoring these objectives to address both personal and career challenges and opportunities for all first-gen students.”

Program Details

The I Am First program provides first- through senior-year first-generation college students with the tools, resources, and confidence to pursue their career-related goals. This non-credit-bearing program has a curriculum consisting of nine two-hour sessions that address the first-generation student experience and their career development. Each session has one or more NACE Competencies built in so students can begin to gain the skills employers seek.

Through a partnership with the Career Launch Academy, students receive a workbook on building their social capital and accessing the hidden job market, and they take a readiness assessment that CSU Fullerton uses to determine the impact of the curriculum and program.

Students meet with an I Am First coach in mandatory sessions to go over the assessment results and discuss areas and ways they can continue building their readiness skills.

Through a collaboration with the CEO Leadership Alliance of Orange County, students participate in microinternships to gain experience in various industries. Students are also matched with a mentor who they are required to meet with at least twice throughout the nine sessions. Through this partnership, students in I Am First have priority acceptance for microinternships offered by various OC corporations and businesses.

“The I Am First program aims to provide a sense of belonging and community among the students through a cohort-based model,” Reyes says.

“To accomplish this, we have a cohort for first- and second-year students in the fall semester and transfer, third-, and fourth-year students in the spring and summer semesters. There is a new cohort of 45 to 55 students each semester.”

Reyes explains that the cohort model provides students with a sense of community and belonging among their first-generation peers that adds to the value of the program and the student’s motivation to participate in the I Am First Program.

“The student’s participation in the cohort model allows for the opportunity to find commonalities amongst their peers and relate to the similar challenges a first-gen student experiences,” she says.

“Throughout the program and during each session, we ensure some type of peer-to-peer interaction and bonding opportunity.”

Program Evaluation and Outcomes

There are two methods of evaluation/assessment for I Am First:

  • Program Effectiveness Evaluation created using Qualtrics.
  • Career Launch evaluation to measure students’ career readiness pre- and post-I Am First in the following areas:
    • Relationship Building (RB);
    • Professional Communication (PC);
    • Career Planning & Exploration;
    • Internship/Job Search; and
    • Interview Preparedness.

This formative 40-question assessment is mapped to the NACE Career Readiness Competencies and six high-impact career mobility practices from The Career Leadership Collective. Below are data that show an increase in skill attainment from the pre- and post-I Am First for three separate cohorts in 2022:

Figure 1: Increase in skill attainment from pre- to post-I Am First program participation

Relationship building
Summer 20228%
Spring 2022 4.5%
Fall 20225%
Professional communication
Summer 20227%
Spring 2022 1%
Fall 20225%
Internship/job search
Summer 20229%
Spring 2022 5%
Fall 20227%
Career & self-development
Summer 20229%
Spring 2022 4%
Fall 20225%
Career planning
Summer 20227%
Spring 2022 4%
Fall 20226%
Skill Summer 2022 Spring 2022 Fall 2022
Relationship building 8% 4.5% 5%
Professional communication 7% 1% 5%
Internship/job search 9% 5% 7%
Career & self-development 9% 4% 5%
Career planning 7% 4% 6%

Growing the Program

The I Am First program has garnered increased support and interest. During its second year, CSU Fullerton’s president and vice president of students affairs granted the career center $250,000 over five years from the university’s Graduation Initiative 2025 funding.

“Through the work of our president and university advancement, we also received donor funding of $250,000 over five years,” Reyes says.

“With this large funding support, we are able to continue the program and offer scholarship opportunities to our students in each cohort through the completion of an I Am First scholarship project. This has allowed us to enhance the student program experience through our partnership with Career Launch in which we purchase student workbooks, readiness assessments, and microlearning licenses.”

Reyes added that the career center also needed to offer an additional cohort during the summer due to the number of applications it received from transfer, third-, and fourth-year students.

“We learn something new from cohort to cohort and do our best to implement changes to continue enhancing the program as much as possible,” Reyes says.

“Since I Am First launched in Spring 2020, we have learned things like the importance of using data to show impact and offering orientations to new program participants to address issues of dropout. Adding a mentor component was key as well.”

Effective Practices and Next Steps

Reyes offers other strategies that have proven effective in developing and growing a program such as I Am First. According to Reyes:

  • Cohort models work the best to keep student interest and participation, especially among underrepresented student populations.
  • Adding an application process is key to indicate the commitment that the student needs to make and understanding that it’s not just a career center workshop that they can show up to without any consequences.
  • Tailoring the program to a specific target population and communicating the benefits a student will receive is important, as are partnerships with campus departments that may have expertise in working with the program’s target student population. This can also help with funding the program if the campus department has access to grant money or other funding sources.
  • If possible, adding a scholarship opportunity as part of the program can help to incentivize participation. We offer a $250 scholarship for a culminating project in which a student can choose to participate.
  • Starting off with a pilot version of your program allows organizers to learn what works and doesn’t work and if it will be feasible long term.

Having implemented these strategies, the next phase of I Am First is to extend the curriculum across campus to reach a larger population of students. For example, CSU Fullerton launched its I Am First, I Am an Artist program specifically for arts majors in summer 2023.

“We intend to accomplish this through microlearning opportunities using the Career Launch Readiness Assessment and other tools,” Reyes says.

“Our campus community is very proud of what the I Am First program has accomplished thus far for our students and looks forward to building upon our success in the years to come.”

blank default headshot of a user Kevin Gray is an associate editor at NACE. He can be reached at kgray@naceweb.org.

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