How to improve career development opportunities for first-generation students


How to improve career development opportunities for first-generation students

Students and learning illustration

First-generation students face unique challenges in the career development and exploration process that continuing-generation students may not encounter. First-generation students are less likely to have established professional networks than students with parents who navigated the college process or have industry connections.

They may also be less familiar with norms around networking and they may be more hesitant to reach out to professional contacts for guidance or support. In a job market where 70% of jobs are obtained through networking and 80% of jobs are never officially advertised, first-generation students face steep barriers in the career search process.

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of jobs are obtained through networking

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of jobs are never advertised, instead filled through networking inside contacts and word of mouth

The looming impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the job market makes this all the more urgent to address. Many of the challenges associated with finding employment amid a pandemic are more acute for first-generation college students, who may already feel underprepared to navigate the career exploration process. In light of these challenges, institutions should bolster career support for first-generation students.

Foster early engagement with the career center

A Strada-Gallup survey found that nearly 40% of students have never used their school’s career services resources. Of the students who had used the services, first-generation students were significantly more likely to rate the guidance they received as “very helpful.” Institutions should aim to provide students with these valuable interactions as early as possible.

For example, Grinnell College assigns all incoming first-year and transfer students a career advisor. These advisors send personalized emails to all new students the summer before their first year to introduce themselves and provide insight on how they will work together during the year ahead.  After meeting with their advisor during New Student Orientation with a small group of peers, students then begin meeting one-on-one with their advisor during the fall and spring semesters. This strategy provides students a point of contact before arrival, normalizes early career exploration, maximizes awareness of the center, and reduces pressure for students to initiate contact with career services.


of students at Grinnell College visit the career center before the end of their first year


students are assigned to each advisor, who meets twice with each student in their first year

While Grinnell targets all first-year students with this proactive strategy, larger colleges and universities can target early outreach to first-generation students if contacting all first-year students is not feasible. Building early relationships with career advisors gets first-gen students thinking about career exploration and development at the very beginning of their college experience, so they have four years to take advantage of career center services such as resume reviewing, mock interviewing, job shadowing, and career fairs.

Start early with first-year career exposure programs

First-generation students are less likely to have established professional networks and industry connections. This can make it more difficult for first-gen students to explore potential careers or access valuable internship opportunities. To help close that gap, career services should organize early development programs that provide structured opportunities for first-generation students to job shadow, find a mentor, and gain industry exposure.

For example, Bay Path University organizes meetings between employers and groups of students to facilitate job shadowing. They learned that it was important to set up the meetings proactively, rather than just providing students with a list of employers willing to speak with them. In the past, when Bay Path provided a list of employers without setting up meetings, they didn’t see meaningful engagement. Students weren’t sure how to reach out or what to ask for. Now that Bay Path covers initial interactions and logistics, student participation is up and feedback for the program is positive.

How to improve the first-generation student experience

Our Roadmap shares four steps to support first-generation students, from providing accessible information to fostering a college community.

Hamilton College takes a more comprehensive approach to supporting students’ early career development. Hamilton offers a year-long bridge program called First Year Forward (FYF) targeted at first-year first-generation and low-income students. FYF organizes and incentivizes career exploration opportunities for first-generation students. Students complete monthly group sessions on professional development topics, three informational interviews over winter break, and individual meetings with a career counselor. Students complete these steps with the incentive of a stipend for a career-related summer experience.

Year-long career development initiative at Hamilton College

  • Students are selected in their first year to participate based on financial need and first-generation college student status

  • Students complete self-assessment and career exploration

  • Students attend monthly group sessions on professional development topics

  • Students complete three informational interviews over winter break

  • Students participate in four individual appointments with career counselors or peer advisors

  • Students who complete academic year components participate in career related summer experience

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