Many of the students I taught in a college internship program were first-generation, low-income students. Often they look for career opportunities that will lead to a better life for themselves and their families, but give up because they feel behind from the start. They feel they have no chance compared to their peers from privileged backgrounds.
To address this issue, we need to think holistically about how the life experiences and circumstances of first-generation and low-income students differ from those of elite students. This gap has been described as the “hidden curriculum” of professional norms and contexts that schools never explicitly teach, but which some young people internalize growing up in elite environments.
First-generation and low-income students need career guidance upon arrival at higher education institutions, as their families are often unable to prepare the groundwork for them. But once they have access, they are ready to launch with the same ambition that got them admitted.
To ensure this happens, these students must be welcomed and met with opportunities that provide the necessary background information and mentorship from day one. Waiting to acquire the knowledge organically – through courses and chance encounters – often means falling behind the recruiting schedule and facing competition from peers with multiple internships and advanced job skills on their CVs. Many become intimidated and give up pursuing dream jobs.
Those who persevere usually impress interviewers with their drive and ingenuity, but that’s when another challenge can arise: cultural fit. First-generation students tell me they are afraid of small talk, because even well-meaning questions often lead to awkward conversations. A college student from Colorado is asked about her favorite ski resorts, only to find that her family can’t afford to ski. Another student dreads questions about her parents, as she doesn’t like to say that her father was expelled.
They attend information sessions and learn that they are supposed to network, but say they have no idea how to talk to older professionals. Additionally, they often feel inadequate in terms of the “relativeness” and “polish” that many careers demand. While many young people look to their families for encouragement and guidance, first-generation students may receive a lot of love, but not enough practical guidance.
Some say they can’t even explain their career aspirations to their parents, while their classmates receive expert help at all hours of the day or night. Universities can help by introducing first-generation students to successful professionals who were first-generation or low-income students themselves and can offer advice that resonates in combination with relatable experiences.
Additionally, just as first-generation and low-income college students need training on how to feel confident in networking, professionals who interview first-generation and low-income college students need to understand how to ask questions that make positive connections without unintentional condescension: first-generation recruitment and low-income students is a two-way street that also requires work from investigators.
Students from non-elite backgrounds want to work hard and change the lives of their families, but they often find themselves swimming upstream, even when their abilities have secured them a place at a prestigious college. Giving them a real chance means recognizing the enormous value of family support and designing programs to compensate for its absence.
Student clubs that promote professional development are also a great way to get mentorship and advice while building your support network, but even they have barriers to entry. Applicants should submit polished CVs and speak convincingly about their professional interests during the first weeks of their freshman year.
While I appreciate the leadership role that some institutions, including my own, have taken in addressing these challenges, the students who need support the most are not taking full advantage of them. That’s partly because first-generation, low-income college students don’t have a roadmap of what they should be doing early on.
Pursuing competitive careers requires a solid record of past achievement – a record that students from elite backgrounds often begin to build before some first-generation and low-income students even realize that is what is expected of them. them.
Meanwhile, first-generation college students are still acclimatizing: they may be learning how to create a resume and figure out what career options are out there. Even as they become adept at navigating the landscape of career opportunities, divisions can deepen when elite students leverage their networks to secure summer internships, while low-income students may have family obligations or other limitations that prevent them from doing so: unpaid internships that provide experience without income, for example, are not an option for many.
Dr. Nina Wieda is an Assistant Instructional Professor in the Chicago Field Studies Program at Northwestern University.