Program Helps First-Generation Students Build Confidence, Overcome Obstacles

June 16, 2021 | By Kevin Gray

Seven students in graduation attire

TAGS: best practices, career development, diversity and inclusion, first generation, nace insights, special population,

Spotlight for Career Services Professionals

California State University (CSU) Fullerton offers many programs to support diverse students and prepare them for the challenges and obstacles they face throughout the college experience.

The career center developed the “I Am First” program to address the specific needs of first-generation college students and provide them with the tools, resources, and confidence to pursue their career-related goals.

“With first-generation college students representing one of the largest diverse student populations at CSU Fullerton, the career center recognized a need to further support this population as they work toward their career goals,” says Stephanie Reyes, senior associate director of the CSU Fullerton career center.

“First-generation college students face many obstacles and challenges that can potentially lead them to do poorly academically and they may lack the self-confidence to pursue career goals if not provided the proper support from staff and faculty. ‘I Am First’ students are amongst a group of their peers who can relate to the first-generation college experience and provide a network of support, even beyond the program’s conclusion.”

The program has two separate cohorts: one is first- and second-year first-generation students and the other is third- and fourth-year and transfer students who are first generation. Reyes says that their needs tend to be tied to their level of career development.

“For example,” Reyes continues, “one of the biggest challenges for first-generation students in their first or second year of college is picking a major. Because no one in their family has gone to college, they don’t have anyone with that experience to offer them knowledgeable guidance. Still, that’s who they tend to ask because that’s their network and support.”   

Reyes, who was a first-generation college student, says that these families tend to know just the more visible careers, such as doctors, accountants, and lawyers.

“They don’t know the range of careers open to students,” she says, adding parents often tell their students to select a career in which the students can make a lot of money.

The “I Am First” program features a PowerPoint session conducted in Spanish to help families learn what their students are experiencing and provide them with support.

“We feel it is very important to include families in this process so they understand the challenges and barriers their students are facing as they progress through their college career,” Rojas says. 

Another challenge first-generation students face from the very start of their college careers is overcoming “impostor syndrome,” whereby they experience feelings of self-doubt and of being a “fraud.”

“The ‘I Am First’ program builds their confidence and another need we address is facilitating a sense of belonging,” explains Marcela Rojas, assistant director of career education and campus engagement at CSU Fullerton, and also a first-generation student.

“When meeting with students who identify as first generation, we often hear that they feel like they are going through their experience alone. Therefore, we wanted to address this need of a sense of belonging and normalizing their situation by creating opportunities to build community amongst the group. The students work through intentional programming together and are connected to CSU Fullerton alumni, staff, faculty, and administrators who also identified as first-generation college students.”

There are several foundational pillars upon which the “I Am First” program is constructed. They are to:

  • Empower—The program provides participants with the tools and resources to build confidence and self-awareness as they embark upon their college experience at CSU Fullerton. It is important to recognize the many strengths and talents first-generation college student have to offer and begin to apply during their college journey.
  • Explore—Participants have access to opportunities and learning formats during working sessions to begin exploring career and life goals. “I Am First” program participants engage in a “design your life” session to begin exploring various aspects of the college experience, including determining their major and/or career path and how it relates to the challenges and opportunities of being a first-generation college student. Students are also exposed to a panel of first-generation alumnus and faculty members who can share valuable advice and tips for success throughout the college experience.
  • Execute—The program offers participants a career roadmap plan of action and exposure to networking opportunities. These networking opportunities provide an opportunity for students to engage with first-generation alumnus working in various professions and faculty to begin working toward executing goals and overcoming the traditional challenges of identifying as a first- or second-year first-generation college student.

Launched in spring 2020, the “I Am First” program has had three cohorts of students with a combined total of 92 first-generation students participating. At the end of the semester-long program, these participants have reported feeling a stronger sense of community with the peers at CSU Fullerton, confidence in communicating their strengths and/or skills to others and how they relate to their career goals, and empowered to continue pursuing their career and academic goals.

“We are very intentional with the types of programming we offer to first-generation students in our ‘I Am First’ program,” Reyes says.

“The program is tailored to address the challenges that first-generation students face. Everything is geared to their experience. They come out of the ‘I Am First’ program feeling empowered, that they belong, and with a strong sense of their career goals and knowing how to achieve them.”