First-generation college students face a litany of challenges in the career search process. They are more likely to work off-campus jobs, engage in community service, or have family obligations that may preclude them from accessing career support services. They are less likely to have established professional networks and industry connections, which can make career exploration and networking more challenging. Career centers should consider three strategies to make their services more accessible and inclusive for first-generation students.
1. Reduce barriers for first-generation students by exploring new ways for students to interact with the career center
Carnegie Mellon University’s career center offers webinars and short YouTube videos, enabling students to access valuable teachings at any time. Recent topics have included virtual interviewing strategies and finding employment opportunities in a challenging environment. Carnegie Mellon posts approximately three videos per month for its nearly 3,000 subscribers.
Colby College expanded office hours to accommodate a wider student base so that students with daytime commitments can still utilize career services. Their hours are Monday-Thursday: 8 a.m.-midnight, Friday: 8 a.m.-6 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday: 9 a.m.-midnight.
The Ohio State University hosts virtual career center walk-in hours Mondays and Thursdays from 2-4 p.m. Students can access one-on-one advising online without making an appointment, breaking down some of the primary barriers to accessing career services.
The Ohio State University also allows student groups and academic departments to request personalized career service workshops on topics like finding an internship, salary negotiation, networking, and many other useful areas. Offering workshops outside the career center helps expand the content to a broader audience who may not otherwise engage with the career center.
2. Ensure students look the part with professional clothing closets
Another common barrier for first-gen students is finding professional attire for networking, interviews, or internships. Career services offices can address this challenge by offering professional clothing to students for employer engagements and interviews. Colleges and universities should consider developing a professional clothing closet that allows students to access professional attire for no or low cost. For example, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte created the Professional Clothing Closet, described in more detail below.
2017: Pilot program
- Launched in partnership with campus food pantry
- Initially funded by University Career center and Campus Food Pantry
- Served 40 students in pilot stage
- Following pilot success, the clothing closet earned a strategic budget allocation line to expand the program
- Relocated closet to more central location, tripling nearby foot traffic
- Partnered with IKEA and Sherwin Williams on storage and furniture
- Employer partner clothing drives and alumni clothing drives help stock the closet
- The program is also sponsored by the University's Diversity Fund and a continued partnership with JCPenney on an annual event
2020 and beyond: Sustainability
- Shrinking need for budget allocation as more donations and sponsorships continue
- Serves 300+ students per academic year since new space
- The closet includes 3-4 racks of professional items for career fair preparation
- The University monitors overstock and sends clothing to other charities to expand community presence
3. Build relationships with alumni—particularly those who understand the first-generation journey
Without a strong professional network, first-generation students may lack the support to navigate the career search process. Some colleges are helping students build that network by leveraging alumni. A first-generation alumni network is a win-win for students and alumni. First-gen students find it easier to approach other first-gen alumni with questions due to shared student experiences, and first-gen alumni are motivated to help students navigate the same challenges they did.
Two first-generation graduates of Harvard University launched a First-Generation Alumni Network with the purpose of providing mentoring, advocacy, and networking opportunities. Their goal is to create a relatable and willing network of support for first-generation college students beyond graduation. The network grew quickly with 350 current members.
Beyond an alumni network, the University of Toronto enlists volunteer support from alumni to conduct virtual resume reviews, identify internship and job opportunities, mentor students, and share career journeys with first-gen students. Connecting students with alumni who work in their industry can be invaluable to building connections and strengthening students’ initial job applications.
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