Spotlight for Career Services Professionals
As a first-generation student, Dreama Montrief Johnson remembers going home from college on breaks and trying to explain to her parents why she decided to take a women and gender course or why she was declaring a major in religious studies and how that would be connected to her outcomes after her graduation from the University of Virginia (UVA).
“My parents asked if I was going to be a pastor and while this certainly could have been an option, I felt stuck explaining myself when I had no idea what I was going to do after graduation nor had the best sense of how religious studies would or would not impact that decision,” Johnson recalls.
“I knew I liked the material, I had found mentors in the department, and those were the first classes in which I felt like I could be myself. Sharing the experience of college with your family as a first-generation student can be exciting and at the same time it can be distancing.”
Now the associate director of public service and government community and global careers at the UVA Career Center, Johnson says she has not only heard the following expressed by students, she has felt it herself: You feel like you never go back home the same.
“It’s not that your family loves you any less, but there is a difference,” she explains. “I also think it is hard for parents to understand as well because they have likely worked very hard to help their student get a college education, but are also watching their child grow in ways they may not have expected. Students may come home with different beliefs and ways of viewing the world around them, and this new perspective can be hard to reconcile with what they have known growing up.”
David McDonough, director of the Bates College Career Development Center (CDC), agrees that the family pressures first-generation students may face can affect their academic and career decisions.
“Family members of first-generation students may not embrace their student attending college, feeling a sense of loss or that the student is too aspirational in their career choices,” McDonough says. “There may be financial pressures for the student to pursue a high-paying or well-established career path. It can often be difficult to explain the diversity of classes, majors, and career paths, particularly at a liberal arts college like Bates, to other family members.”
So with these and other pressures and circumstances coming into play, how can career services offices best support and provide resources for first-generation students? The first step is to avoid making one of the common mistakes career services programs make—not accounting for the unique circumstances and needs of these students.
“Some career centers may treat all students the same or have difficulty identifying first-generation status,” McDonough explains. “But first-generation students may have more need for advice, connections, and support than the average student. There may be barriers to success, family obligations, or hidden circumstances that may prevent students from seeking help or from pursuing their objectives. It’s important to uncover obstacles that might exist and find ways in which those obstacles can be removed.”
McDonough points out that first-generation students often need more in-depth career counseling, greater access to networking connections, and monetary support for internships and other career-related experiences.
“There can be a tendency for first-generation students to have a limited world view on what’s possible, so exposure to a wide variety of career options is vital,” he adds.
There are a number of programs and resources in place at Bates that help first-generation students overcome barriers to success. Supporting them starts with pre-orientation through “Bobcat First,” which provides a sense of belonging and community on campus. The career center provides formal and informal support during this initial period.
“We also ensure that first-generation students know about our services through targeted e-mails, walk-in hours at the Office of Intercultural Education, and programs that provide monetary assistance to students in need,” McDonough says. “We track metrics on number of student visits and interactions by first-generation students so we can then target students who haven’t used our services.”
The Bates CDC partners with faculty, student affairs, and other departments on campus so students can be referred to the CDC. Similarly, the CDC referring students to other support services on campus can help these students take advantage of all of the resources available to assist them.
In terms of financial support, the Bates CDC’s job-shadow program provides travel support to students who need it so they can connect with alumni and explore a wide variety of career fields.
“The Purposeful Work Internship Program provides a core set of paid internships and funding to support unpaid internships,” McDonough notes. “In other career center programs, such as employer visits or medical school visits, we ensure that all students have access to these opportunities with financial assistance provided as needed.”
In addition to financial support, financial security is also important to first-generation students. Johnson says she has worked with students for whom there is immense pressure whether brought on by themselves, family, or society that college is the opportunity that will position them into a financially secure future.
“This value is important to acknowledge and recognize when working with first-generation students as this often can shape the types of career paths they are willing to consider,” Johnson says.
She adds that another concern is building social capital.
“While students may not be able to articulate it in our ‘higher education speak,’ we have worked with first-generation students who are concerned about not knowing who to talk to about their career search or exploration,” Johnson says. “Oftentimes, the root of the concern is around the ‘how’ of accessing people who can help them with their search.”
Johnson says that this often leads to sharing how students can develop the fundamentals of networking, helping them identify who they have access to (fellow students, alumni, faculty, and others), and also what cultural norms or behaviors might exist in certain informational interviewing or professional settings.
Nearly 10 percent of UVA’s undergraduate student body are first-generation students. The UVA Career Center provides them with support by offering direct service through office hours and appointments. It also works with student groups and collaborates on programming with the Dean of Students Office, which has staff designated to work with first-generation students and hosts a programming series to support the transition into and out of college for first-generation students.
“We often partner with them on workshops like networking and interviewing to help students practice these types of situations or questions when in a professional setting,” Johnson notes. “They have hosted etiquette dinners for students where we have been invited. We also supported the Dean of Students Office in a grant they were awarded for working with nontraditional students and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, many of whom identified as first-generation.”
Still, getting to that point—student self-identification as first generation student—is the greatest challenge the UVA Career Center faces in working with this population.
“Much like other hidden or less visible identities, I have worked with first-generation students who do not want people to know that about themselves,” Johnson says. “We get to know students well so they feel comfortable sharing this information. I often will often self-disclose my first-generation identity to help open that door if in fact they wish to share.”
Even then, McDonough says first-generation students tend to use services less than the general student population, lack networking connections, and are less likely to pursue an unpaid internship (and then miss out on the paid internship the following year).
“At Bates, we have targeted outreach to first-generation students encouraging them to use services, provide funding for unpaid internships based on financial need, and provide a robust job shadow program with alumni and parents that gives students exposure to many career fields,” he adds.
Like Johnson at UVA, the Bates CDC employs a number of Career Development Fellows, seniors and juniors who provide peer counseling in the career center and beyond.
“During the hiring process, we ensure we have a diverse representation of students, including first-generation students,” McDonough says. “It’s important to understand who on your staff may have an interest in this area. I was surprised to learn that a number of staff in the career center were first-generation students themselves so they personally understand the issues and challenges these students face.”