This study will help you identify areas where you can better support the first-generation students on your campus.
Focusing on First-
Generation College Students
As the number of first-generation students at four-year institutions grows, pressure to improve outcomes for this group also increases. Only 11% of first-generation college students graduate in six years. In contrast, 25% leave school after the first year. While the academic work is an adjustment for many students, the administrative barriers may be harder for first-generation students to overcome. Without parents or siblings who have attended college, first-generation students struggle to make sense of unfamiliar higher education jargon and processes.
In addition, there are social and emotional barriers. First-generation students find themselves surrounded by students from different economic backgrounds, who have grown up with parents and siblings in college. It can be difficult to identify other first-generation students or develop new campus-based networks of support. Faced with all of these challenges, first-generation students may wonder if they truly belong on campus.
This resource is part of the Improve Student Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Roadmap. Access the Roadmap for stepwise guidance with additional tools and research.
Every year, we begin our research process by conducting a topic poll. After synthesizing the data from the survey, there was clear consensus across almost every type of institution that we serve, that supporting first-generation college students was a top-of-mind issue. Almost all small and medium institutions, a large majority of private and public institutions, and almost 70% of Canadian institutions identified this topic as priority. While speaking on the phone with members, our research team found almost universal agreement that this was a campus focus.
Approaches to improve completion rates for first-generation college students
Dedicated, high-touch programs designed specifically for first-generation college students
Broad, campus-wide efforts to better connect all students with important resources
Empower Students to Better Navigate the College Experience
Attention to and information about higher education is a familiar presence in public discourse and in the media. It is easy to forget that familiarity with higher education, as a concept, does not always translate into an understanding of the student experience or institutional structures and requirements. This knowledge, however, is crucial for a smooth transition to campus.
First-generation college students are often unaware of the nuances of how institutions work and what is expected of them, which affects the way they are able to complete mandatory “to dos”, such as filling out the FAFSA, understanding university communications, and preparing for what life will be like on campus.
While students in dedicated programs receive one-on-one support and guidance, others are left to figure things out on their own. Institutions must find a way to scale this guidance to flatten the learning curve for all first-generation college students.
A sense of unfamiliarity and uncertainty about what to do starts as soon as students begin interacting with institutions. Once accepted, they receive an influx of communication, much of which is filled with new and unfamiliar language. Among the information they receive about student programming, campus involvement, and campus facilities, is their financial aid information and other important documents. It can be hard for first-generation college students to differentiate between what is necessary to address immediately, and what may be nice to know a year from now.
Georgetown Eases the Transition with the Thrive Guide
To help first-generation college Georgetown Eases the Transition with the Thrive Guide students sort through the flurry of communication they receive and the “to do” list they must accomplish, as they prepare to arrive on campus, Georgetown University developed a “Thrive Guide.” It is essentially a “CliffsNotes” for all the other university communication the students receive.
Tailored to first-generation college students, it addresses topics and questions that a student’s parents might not be able to help their student with if they did not go to college. While resources like this could certainly serve a large number of students, what differentiates this effort from a traditional checklist or “getting started” document, is that they consulted first-generation college students in developing it, asking them what they wish they’d known before arriving on campus.
Their involvement surfaced many topics that might not make it into a more general “to do” list, but are crucial for a smooth and low stress transition, such as packing and getting books on a budget, a reasonable number of credits to take in your first semester, and how to access a financial aid refund.
The Thrive Guide was developed five years ago and is updated each year with the help of student interns. What makes this resource so useful is that it contains clear contact information. The guide provides the name of a specific person the student can follow up with for more information. It also includes clear step-by-step guidance for complex tasks and causal, accessible language.
Georgetown has not formally assessed the packet because it is such a small expense to produce, but leaders have observed that since they started distributing the guide, students approach them much sooner when they need help. Staff feels this is due in part to the tone of the packet, which has made offices and staff seem more accessible. They have also gotten great feedback from parents. Many carry it around during move in, saying that it provides one central resource to refer to, saving them from having to search through multiple documents.
Do You Speak Higher Ed?
Even with an effective and targeted arrival guide, students will have to interact with and get information from other sources, including the course registration system and institutional webpages, which are often filled with inaccessible words and higher education jargon. Consider how unfamiliar some of the words on this page would be to someone with no experience in higher education. Not only does this make completing tasks confusing and more difficult, but also reinforces some of those feelings of not belonging that often hinder first-generation college students’ transition.
A study of community college websites found that 70% of students were confused by higher education terms on institutional websites. While this study focused on community college students, the results would likely be similar, if replicated at four-year institutions. Institutions need to recognize there will be a learning curve for first-generation college students as they acclimate to their institutions. One step toward accomplishing that is to make the language used in initial interactions less confusing, so these students will be more likely to persist.
Providing Student-Friendly Translations
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill went through a “translation exercise” for some of their most accessed campus resources for incoming students. They used the Gunning Fog Index (GFI) to evaluate their communications. The GFI is an online tool into which one enters text, that then generates a score indicating the reading level necessary to comprehend that text.
The financial aid text that UNC entered, generated a score indicating that someone would need a partial college education in order to comprehend the text. After rewriting it with guidelines provided by Gunning Fog, their new description was classified as “widely accessible.”
As a general frame of reference, Gunning Fog recommends a score of 12 or less for text that is intended for a wide audience and less than eight to be near universal. To the right are recommendations for creating more accessible text. These steps are especially helpful for colleges who serve a number of students from families with no post secondary education and non-native English speaking families.
Two EAB Resources to Support Implementation
EAB recommends doing a jargon reduction and readability audit of the materials that incoming students must use. We have developed two tools–available now–to guide you through this process. The first is a higher education terminology translation exercise, which helps identify language commonly used in new student onboarding materials. It includes an activity to create student friendly translations of technical jargon and prompts users to review language using the Gunning Fog Index. The second is a higher education jargon reduction exercise, which helps prioritize materials for translation.
Higher Ed Terminology Translation Exercise
- Worksheet identifies language commonly used in new student onboarding materials
- Designed as a group or individual activity to create student-friendly translations of technical jargon
- Prompts review of language and consideration of GFI score
Higher Ed Jargon Reduction Exercise
- Audit exercise for staff to make the college website, newsletter, and other written materials more accessible to students and families
- Prompts brainstorming of materials that drive in-person traffic
- Recommends coordination with IT department to identify high traffic webpages
Not Just a Pre-arrival Issue: Students Face Barriers in Accessing Campus Resources
While the initial transition to Students Face Barriers in Accessing Campus Resources campus poses some of the greatest challenges to incoming first-generation college students, a lack of familiarity and comfort with our institutions continue once students arrive on campus.
Institutions share a lot of information with students at orientation, over email, and through residential life, among other channels, but there are still a lot of places for students to get confused on campus. Students may struggle with procedural issues, like how to drop a class, or with accessing resources, such as tutoring or counseling. It can be very confusing to know where to go to get questions answered, especially when it sometimes takes two to three steps to get a complete resolution.
Eastern Kentucky University GURUs Program
To help simplify campus navigation, Eastern Kentucky University, developed the EKU GURUs program—a centralized, accessible resource to triage any student question or concern.
Thirty-five students are hired and trained as GURUs each year. They work out of three on-campus locations and collectively offer tutoring in over 30 subject areas. Each student specializes in two to three subjects, in addition to supporting students with study skills like time management.
Each GURU also serves as a liaison to two student services units and one academic area. They meet biweekly with senior representatives from each department to collect information. They use that information to update a central wiki page, so that any GURU can view the updates and answer any student question.
GURUs by the Numbers
Trained GURUs each year
On-campus GURU locations
Subject areas offered in tutoring
What differentiates the GURUs program from traditional one-stop shops is that the student employees become a partner in problem solving and work side by side with students to address any challenges they are facing. Sometimes solutions are simple. For example, if a student wants to get involved on campus, a GURU can provide them with a list of involvement opportunities and contact information for follow up.
Sometimes solutions require a longer engagement. A student may come in and need to petition their financial aid package. In this case, the GURU would accompany the student to the financial aid office and stay with them until their problem is resolved. This way having to navigate several different offices or facing language that they may not understand, does not prevent a student from resolving their issue.
One of the reasons GURUs are able to provide so much support to students is because they are recognized as a resource on campus and students are comfortable reaching out to them. With all of the information they have through their liaison responsibilities, they are seen as a hub of information at the institution.
They are able to use social media to push out important information to the entire campus community through their robust presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They have 2,320 followers on Twitter, and over 3,000 followers on Facebook, where they also answer student questions directly. This presence also helps drive in-person traffic to their offices.
Data collected by EKU students highlights the size of the impact the GURUs program is having on students. Most recently, staff found that GURUs answer 2,000 student questions per day—including approximately 100 via social media—and complete 3,000 homework help sessions per semester. They have also seen increases in overall retention rates. Students who met with a GURU retained at a rate of 89% versus students who did not meet with a GURU, who retained at a rate of 6%. Even taking self-selection bias into account, the GURUs at EKU have made a real impact.
GURUs offer an approachable resource for students that eliminates the navigational barriers that first-generation college students, in particular, face when trying to get questions answered or challenges addressed on campus. There is no need for students to know exactly which office to go to, what words to use, or to be afraid of approaching an unfamiliar staff member or administrator. GURUs provide real-time support and ensure a full resolution.
Addressing the Parent-Student Experience Divide
Institutions have put a lot of thought into helping students navigate and ultimately, adjust to their new environments on campus. However, a second component of this transition is often overlooked. As students get oriented to their new reality on campus, it can create a disconnect with their parents and families back home.
There has been a wave of articles chronicling how first-generation college students struggle to communicate with their parents about what they are going through on campus. At the same time, first-generation college students’ parents are often very eager to support their students, but don’t know how. Many times, they do not know what resources are available on campus, that they are free, or understand that needing to ask for help is common.
Institutions have done a lot to try and reach out to and engage parents—sending them newsletters, emails, holding orientation sessions, and keeping them informed about campus events. Often though, the focus of this outreach and communication is not in line with the information that first-generation college students’ parents need and want.
Traditional parent outreach highlights distinguished faculty research and publications, upcoming campus events, and parent volunteer opportunities, often overlooking the much more basic information that first-generation college students’ parents are interested in—the student experience. They want to know, “what is my student going through and how can I support them?”
Fayetteville State University developed the First Steps Program with the intention of providing incoming students and their families with an opportunity to learn about services and programs at FSU, and to explain what the student experience will be like for both the parents and students in the fall. It is meant to be a family affair, with an average of two to three individuals accompanying each student to the event.
In response to parent demand for student experience focused information, administrators took the curriculum from the first semester orientation course that all students take and created a 50-minute crash course about the student experience. It gives parents a preview of what the first semester and year will be like for their child and also ensures that students and parents get the same information. 92% of FSU’s incoming freshmen, 600 students, attended one of the First Steps events, which are offered five times between April and August.
"College Life 101" seminar for parents
- Selecting a major
- Managing student roommate conflicts
- Preparing for college level work
- Encouraging your student to take advantage of faculty office hours
- Resources available for health and wellness
- Managing communication with children when they return home
Response to the First Steps program has been extremely positive. In completion surveys, participants emphasize how much more comfortable they are sending their child to the school, how impressed they are with staff, and how grateful they are for the information.
Almost every student who attends First Steps ultimately enrolls at Fayetteville State University. What is particularly noteworthy about the program is that parents receive the same information as students and become familiar with institutional resources. This prepares both the parents and students for the transition to college and eases some of the communication barriers between them that may arise later on.
Even with a lot of information on the front-end, it can be difficult for parents to keep up with the day-to-day of what their children are going through on campus and to know how they can be most supportive, as the year progresses.
Many institutions send newsletters to parents with important dates and other university news. The University of Missouri sends these and has for years. However, they were getting feedback from families that they wanted more information throughout the academic year on what was going on in their students lives. In response to this, they tailored their newsletters to meet the demand for more specific information.
The revamped, monthly newsletters focus on what is going on in students lives at that time of the year, usually highlighting one specific issue. For example, they alert parents to potentially stressful periods, such as midterms. Most importantly, the emails contain specific talking points and campus resources for parents to discuss with their students, that are related to the issue they are focusing on that month.
In the early fall, as students are in the midst of adjusting to life on campus, Missouri uses the newsletters to focus on wellness. They use a conversational tone to remind parents that they are an important resource and source of influence for their students, and empower them with information to support that.
In late fall, around midterms, they focus on guiding parents to help their students through the stress of testing. They encourage parents to balance questions like “are you studying enough?” with helpful recommendations and questions about their well-being. They point out free on-campus resources to help with studying, such as group tutoring sessions, that parents can remind their students about.
Staff encourage parents to sign up for the newsletter at orientation and through other outreach. If the school has the email addresses of first-generation parents, they are automatically added to the mailing list. Currently, about 23,000 parents receive the newsletter.
Highlight Positive, Identity-Based Messaging
Even with clear guidance and support in navigating college, many first-generation college students still struggle with their initial transition, often because they are feeling isolated and questioning whether they truly belong at the institution.
Many adjustment issues contribute to this struggle. Academic adjustment can be difficult and may lead students to think, “Maybe I’m not smart enough to be here.”
Differences in financial situations may also become apparent in everyday interactions with other students; they may see others going out to eat regularly and wonder if there are other students like them who want to socialize in ways that are inexpensive or free. Finally, feelings of isolation may exist because they may not have examples of success in post-secondary education to model themselves after. These questions and thoughts quickly become very isolating when students can’t find others going through the same things.
There are many student populations who come together on campus to share experiences and be a support network for each other. Minority students, international students, and athletes are easily identified by one another, which makes connecting easy. First-generation status, on the other hand, has no external characteristics and is sometimes unknown, even to the students themselves. This is not surprising when we consider the diversity within this group. While some students will be the first in their family to access any post-secondary education at all, others may have parents with two-year degrees or siblings in college. Though these students may share many of the same challenges and benefit from connecting, it is not easy to identify each other or the resources meant for them.
First-Generation College Students Struggle to Identify Relatable Peers
- Historically underrepresented minorities
- International students
- Student athletes
- Veteran students
- White female whose parents have associates degrees
- African American male, first in his family to go to any college
- Hispanic scholarship student from elite high school
1vyG Exercise Highlights Positive Aspects of Student Identity
In the past, many institutions have hesitated to directly address first-generation college student status, to avoid stigmatizing students. However recently, these students have become more vocal in asking for recognition and support on campus.
At the inaugural 1vyG conference, students were asked to describe first-generation college students in one word. The resulting word cloud, pictured to the right, was filled almost entirely with positive associations. It serves as a good representation of how first-generation college students feel about their identity; they are very proud of their accomplishments and what they have overcome.
First-generation students are now asking for recognition on campus and a chance to come together and be part of a community of support. So institutions must ask themselves how they can proactively identify and address some of the issues movements like 1vyG raise and how they can provide some of the key benefits to students that these groups provide, such as access to relatable peers, normalization of experiences, and positive identity reinforcement.
Reaching Students Before Arrival
UNC Chapel Hill wanted to create a welcoming environment for their first-generation college students. It was important to them that students know that there was a community waiting for them, well before they arrived on campus. They developed a proactive outreach campaign that sends messages to students the summer before the arrive. Messages focus on the strengths and value that they bring to the institution.
Throughout the summer, a staff member sends emails to students on the list, welcoming them to the university and introducing key resources and support networks. They also send these students reminders about important deadlines.
Many colleges send emails to admitted students, but what differentiates this initiative is the consistent messaging and unique branding. Students are told “You are not alone here,” and are made aware of the larger, first-generation college student population at the university. They are also told about the available campus resources and consistently messaged that they are expected to use them.
There are no dedicated staff members for this initiative. The emails are only one of the many tasks for a staff member in the office of undergraduate retention.
To complement this outreach, UNC Chapel Hill has developed a branded web portal that is dedicated to the Carolina Firsts Initiative. It serves as a central place for first-generation college students to access information about resources and provides sense of the community that awaits them on campus, including information about how many students on campus are also first-generation and stories from current first-generation college students.
Carolina Firsts grew out of a retention self-study at UNC Chapel Hill that found that first-generation status was the second leading indicator that a student wouldn’t persist, and 20% of the student body at UNC Chapel Hill is first-generation. Since implementing Carolina Firsts, four-year degree completion rates increased from 69% to 76%. UNC Chapel Hill is committed to the proactive outreach with positive messaging as a tool for supporting and ultimately retaining first-generation college students.
Highlighting Examples of Success
As a next step to identity recognition and broad positive messaging, first-generation college students need tangible examples of success that they feel they can relate to, in order to normalize their own experiences. This is the goal of the “I Relate” campaign at San Jose State University.
The staff at San Jose State University recruited students, faculty, staff, and alumni to share their own experiences as first-generation college students. Each participant recorded a video featuring their own accounts of the challenges they’ve faced as first-generation college students, as well as the resources and support systems they used to address them.
The videos are shared with students on campus largely through social media. Stories are collected and shared on an ongoing basis with a few new videos released each month. The individuals featured in the videos are prompted to talk specifically about how they’ve felt at different times throughout their college experience, resources they accessed to overcome obstacles, and how they have ultimately been successful. The individual videos were compiled into a 30-minute video of powerful testimonials and messages of support.
The 30-minute video compiled from the “I Relate” testimonials is featured at the university’s annual “Come Together” event, during fall “Welcome Days.” The event is an opportunity to meet peers, connect over shared experiences, and hear first-hand how others before them have been successful at San Jose State University as first-generation college students. It is meant to normalize help-seeking and paint a vision of success for each student. Through discussion, after watching the video, students have a chance to share their fears and learn from those who have gone before them. The highlight of the event is a student question and answer panel where upperclassmen share their experiences.
Panelists emphasize the resources they used to be successful and the challenges they’ve faced along the way. Students say it is the most impactful part of the event. One exciting outcome is that 43% of attendees are unaffiliated with any other support program, such as TRIO or EOP, so the event is reaching a portion of the population that isn’t getting support elsewhere. Additionally, after the event, 77% of participants reported feeling connected to the university.
If the immediate goal is to help first-generation college students build a community of support with relatable peers on campus, the long-term goal is for the students to feel a connection to the larger campus community and feel empowered to engage on their own terms.
Seeking help can be a challenge for all students, but first-generation college students in particular may see asking for help as a sign of weakness and are often used to doing things on their own. Once you’ve normalized this behavior by showing them how their peers and predecessors connected with resources, you should communicate to them how expansive their network of support is on campus and empower them to access it, when and how the need it.
There are many people across campus willing and eager to show support for first-generation college students, but they often lack clear channels to do so. To mobilize people across campus, make it easy for them to identify themselves as advocates for first-generation college students.
Lowering Barriers to Help Seeking on Campus
The University of Rochester launched a campus-wide campaign to show first-generation college students that there is a large, visible network on campus that is there to help them. The goal of the 1st ONE Campus Campaign is to make faculty and staff across campus more approachable, thus encouraging help seeking among first-generation college students. Rochester developed a logo for the campaign and sent outreach to the entire campus community, inviting them to participate by displaying a sticker or decal featuring the logo on their office door to show their support for first-generation college students. Students are made aware of the meaning of the campaign and logo through multiple channels, including campus newsletters, a series of email blasts, and social media.
Rochester received a great initial response to their outreach, with 1,000 faculty and staff members requesting decals in the pilot year of the campaign. The offices represented included admissions, advising services, graduate studies, residential life, academic departments, and others. Everyone who responded also received an informational one-pager about supporting first-generation college students.
This is important because the decal distribution is not limited to former first-generation college students and is inclusive of anyone who wants to show support. Since this is the case, they wanted to provide basic information on how to support these students to all those who expressed interest. In the future, staff will repeat their outreach to connect with those they may have missed last year. They are also planning to do more proactive outreach to advisors to better connect them and their students with the information.
Rethink Our Approach to Student Involvement
It is widely accepted that getting involved on campus has a positive effect, not only on student persistence during college, but also on future success.
Recently, research has focused on the long term benefits of campus involvement. However first-generation college students are often not as engaged on campus as their continuing generation peers. These students are more likely to commute to campus, work more hours at off-campus jobs, and have external responsibilities, such as caring for a family member, all of which leave them less time to be engaged on campus.
First-generation college students also may not understand the importance and potential value of engagement on campus. This group often sees academics as their primary reason for attending the institution with the intention of preparing for work after college. They don’t realize how much co-curricular experiences matter in preparing them for their future careers.
Shifting Our Perceptions of Student Involvement
Just because first-generation college students may not engage with the university the way we usually expect students to, doesn’t meant that they are not engaging in valuable developmental opportunities and gaining relevant skills.
For example, while a “traditional” student might hold an on-campus job, a first-generation college student is more likely to work off-campus. Both jobs, however, provide professional development and work experience. Similarly, while a “traditional” student may serve as a peer mentor at your university, a first-generation college student may mentor at their local YMCA. Often, these activities are not recognized on campus.
While there are specific benefits to being engaged on campus, it is important to acknowledge the work students are doing off campus as well, and help them see their involvement as a part of their development and higher education.
Administrators at Ryerson University noticed that first-generation college students tended to be involved in their communities, rather than on campus, and wanted do something to recognize this involvement. The RU Leadership program encourages students to reflect holistically on how everything they do contributes to their development and growth as a leader. Students are exposed to alternative leadership perspectives through various guest speakers and workshops. The program also allows off-campus activities to be incorporated into the co-curricular transcript. Collaborations and partnerships, both on and off campus, are key to making this program possible.
Many programs and opportunities go along with the RU Leadership program, including one-on-one leadership coaching, an online hub to search for volunteer opportunities, a series of speakers and workshops, and a leadership summit.
Lead Blue and Gold is a leadership program that guides students through these offerings, giving them a space to track and reflect on their own development as a leader.
The program is built around six pillars: personal leadership, self-awareness and development, communication, teamwork and cooperation, diversity and inclusion, and civic responsibility. To complete the program, students must complete five experiences aligned with each pillar, either on or off campus, submit reflections on their experiences, and attend a workshop for each pillar. Students earn a certificate for completing the entire curriculum.
RU leadership meets students where they are and works with them on their own terms. It recognizes and celebrates different ways that students are engaged. Leadership styles can vary and this program seeks meaningful ways to recognize students for their diverse leadership contributions. It also provides students with valuable resume building opportunities and access to networking events. One of the benefits to the institution is increased engagement. It also it puts the institution at the center of student growth and reflection, despite some of the experiences taking place off campus.
Simplifying and Streamlining Student Involvement
In an effort to increase oncampus engagement among it’s low-income and firstgeneration college student population, Ball State University developed the “Achievements” mobile app to facilitate, encourage, and reward students for getting involved on campus. Looking at both national research on retention and the university’s internal data, Ball State found that students who engaged on campus were more likely to complete their degree. As a result, they wanted to motivate more students to be active on campus.
They created the “Achievements” app, which aims to motivate students to get involved by gamifying the college experience. The app allows students to explore various ways to get involved on campus, with activities broken up into small, easy to accomplish tasks.
Students earn “Bennies,” named after the Ball State institutional icon, for involvement related accomplishments, which they can redeem for rewards at the campus bookstore and Starbucks. There is also a leaderboard in the app where students can compete to earn the most points. Last year, the average user earned about $100 worth of rewards and the top earner received nearly $200.
Ball State University’s “Achievements” App Encourages and Rewards Engagement
- Explore ways to get involved on campus
- Select options to obtain more detailed information
- Track attendance and overall involvement through the app
- Earn and accumulate “Bennies” for various involvement-related accomplishments
- Redeem “Bennies” for rewards from the campus bookstore and elsewhere
The first goal of the “Achievements” app is to provide students with simple ways to begin engaging on-campus and provide small nudges for them continue to do so. They wanted to offer some low-hanging fruit to get students started. Students begin by checking off easy-to-do things, such as visiting certain campus landmarks, earning a small number of points and helping them build confidence and comfort navigating campus.
After that, the idea is that students will look for other things to do that require slightly more effort, such as visiting the career center, going to student organization meetings, or meeting with an advisor. Now, in the app’s second year, Ball State is continuing to add new activities and features. One new feature will be awarding students points for repeating achievements, like going to the library, in an effort to turn some of these behaviors into habits.
Early adoption of the app was impressive at Ball State. The app was piloted with all incoming Pell-eligible students in 2014. Students were invited to participate via email blast. With just a few emails, they had 25% of Pell-eligible students using the app by the end of the first semester. By the end of that year, more than 50% of eligible students were active app users.
The first year of data showed positive effects on student success. Students who used the app had a retention rate 4.2 percentage points higher than Pell-eligible, non-users. Ball State also observed higher GPAs and credit hours earned among participants. The long-term goal is improved persistence and completion rates.
Another benefit of the project is the large volume of data it is generating on students and the activities that are correlated with more or less success, which will allow them to tailor and retool interventions in the future.
Front-loading Guided Practice with Career Development
Much of the work that has been done to support first-generation college students focuses on their initial transition to campus and, ultimately, college completion. However, to truly be successful in serving first-generation college students, institutions should ensure they’re prepared to live meaningful lives and do meaningful work after they leave our campuses.
Institutions now need to help prepare first-generation college students to overcome some of the barriers that they will face after graduation by engaging them with career development opportunities earlier in their college careers.
First-generation college students often need more assistance gaining experience and confidence in professional interactions, networking opportunities, and other important career development opportunities, such as internships. With 70% of jobs estimated to be obtained through networking, these experiences are critical to future success.
First-generation college students often have limited professional connections to leverage in the job search and to connect them with these opportunities. This not only limits their professional network, but it also leaves them inexperienced in interacting with these key employment gatekeepers. Because they may be unfamiliar with the norms of networking and professional interactions, they may also feel uncomfortable in professional interactions.
With so much at stake, it is imperative that institutions help first-generation college students learn these skills and access these opportunities earlier. One of the easiest ways to make contact with professionals is through job shadowing opportunities. Many first-generation college students, however, question why an employer would want to help them in their career search.
It can be intimidating to reach out and pursue opportunities like job shadowing when students feel like it is a huge ask of the employer. Students also wonder what questions they’ll ask, if they’ll be warmly received, and if they’re wasting the employer’s time. They may also get caught up in simple logistical issues like finding the office or arranging transportation to get there.
Bay Path University had previously implemented a job shadowing program, by which students were given lists of willing employers to reach out to and request to meet. However, not many students took advantage of it due to a lack of comfort and confidence.
To address these barriers, Bay Path decided to experiment with a group job shadow program. Career center staff reached out to employers with whom they had established relationships and arranged to bring up to six students at a time to meet with three different executives and learn more about the employer. Now, students are introduced to the professionals in small groups and are able to ask questions in a safe environment with Bay Path staff supporting the logistics and initial interactions.
Since switching to this model, participation has increased and student feedback has been extremely positive. Last year, 99 students participated in group job shadows, which is four-times as many as participated in job shadowing the year before.
Jumpstart Career Development in the First Year
Once students overcome their initial fears and build basic professional skills, institutions must empower them with the information and tools they need to leverage these new skills in the future. That is the goal of Hamilton College’s First Year Forward program. The First Year Forward (FYF) program was developed to put first-year, first-generation college students on equal footing with their peers, in terms of professional preparation, by their sophomore year.
FYF is a year-long, career development initiative. Students are selected to participate based on financial need and first-generation college student status. Last year, 50 students were nominated and 33 participated.
Students complete a series of requirements over the course of the year, including monthly group sessions on professional development topics, three informational interviews over winter break, and individual meetings with a career counselor. If all the program steps are completed during the academic year, students are eligible to participate in a career-related summer experience, for which they receive a stipend.
The First Year Forward program includes an informational interview component. All students are required to complete three informational interviews over winter break. Students receive extensive preparation and support for these throughout the semester. They attend a Networking 101 session, where they set interview goals and meet with their career counselor to practice outreach, brainstorming, and interviews.
Counselors start slowly, allowing students to interview someone they may know already and feel comfortable with, for the first interview, then ask students to take one step further outside of their comfort zone with each following interview.
Students report that this is one of the most impactful things they do in the program. They can’t believe how willing employers are to help and how much they learn in these conversations. Students also said they are much more likely to reach out to others in the future to continue exploration and development.
An especially valuable component of the First Year Forward program is the opportunity for students to complete a career-related summer experience after their first year. The goal is to allow students to continue developing their professional networks and engage in career exploration over the summer.
Students must complete 150 hours over the summer to fulfill the requirements of the career-related experience. Students who complete the hours earn a $2,000 stipend to offset the costs of not working a traditional job.
In the few years since the program was implemented, Hamilton has been very happy with the outcomes for first-generation college students. Persistence through the program is consistently strong. In 2014, all 33 students completed the academic year requirements and all but four completed the summer experience. Upon completion, participants report more confidence in interviewing and networking, as well as feeling on an equal or better footing than their peers.
A second goal of this program is to encourage ongoing engagement between first-generation college students and the institution’s career services, which has been a success. Program assessment reveals that 88% of First Year Forward students engage in a career center program or make an appointment at the career center during their sophomore year. In addition, 48% of First Year Forward participants engaged with the career center at what is considered an “ideal level” during their sophomore year.
Many First Year Forward participant testimonials emphasized that the availability of stipends was the only reason the students were able to complete their career-related summer experience. However, opportunity cost isn’t the only barrier that prohibits this type of engagement. Smaller, often unforeseen, costs also restrict access for many first-generation college students. For that reason, many schools have designated funds to try and help level access to these types of opportunities. Most commonly, internship stipends and professional development funds are available.
One example of a more creative approach comes from St. John’s University, where they developed a supplementary professional development fund. St. John’s University’s student body is heavily populated by first-generation college students who are often tripped up by unforeseen expenses, such as transportation or the need for business attire. Administrators were able to fundraise with alumni and employer partners, but were unable to accumulate enough to pay full stipends. They decided to offer what they had raised as supplementary funding, based on student requests to cover these smaller, but still prohibitive costs.
Going Beyond Financial Support
First-generation college students need more than money to help prepare them to fully participate in the career development and job search process. For example, assistance in this area is not only about providing professional attire, but also about teaching students to shop for appropriate professional attire efficiently and on a budget.
A few years ago, Georgetown University approached Ann Inc., the parent company to Ann Taylor and LOFT, to request business attire donations for the students in their Georgetown Scholarship Program. Instead of straightforward donations, the company worked with the program to create a “Professional Attire Shopping Night.” The program teaches students what they need and how to be smart and efficient shoppers in the future.
For one night, the LOFT store near the college closes for a dedicated event for the students in the program. Loft brings in company stylists to help students shop and make it more fun. Stylists set up different stations to help students shop for the “five things you need” for a professional wardrobe. Every student who attends receives a gift card worth $200 upon arrival, and all merchandise is discounted 50%.
Recruitment of corporate or community partners is a key element of the “Professional Attire Shopping Night.” Institutions can ask businesses to help fund initiatives that support students, looking beyond often well tapped alumni sources of donations. There are a few considerations to keep in mind in pursuing community partnerships.
Prior to partnering with Ann Inc., Georgetown also reached out to a lot of businesses and local stores that turned them down. It is important to cast a wide net and ask a number of retailers. It is also important to figure out who would be the best person to make the ask. Finally, make targeted requests for donations, based on what the business is most prepared and able to provide.
Despite all of the career preparation work institutions are doing with students, we frequently heard that students don’t realize how much support and guidance they actually need until after graduation. One of the most important things institutions can do for students is to prepare them for what comes after they leave your doors, by helping them create a support network they feel comfortable approaching with questions, fears, and for advice, that will still be available after they graduate.
The First-Generation Alumni Network at Harvard was formed for this very reason by two, first-generation alumni, who personally experienced the need for guidance after graduation and wanted to prevent others from having the same experience. The group’s primary activities are mentoring, advocacy, and providing networking opportunities. Ultimately their goal is to create a relatable and willing network of support for first-generation college students that doesn’t end when the students graduate.
The First-Generation Alumni Network has made robust efforts to connect with current students, so the students learn about the group early and come to recognize them as a source of information and guidance. An early initiative was to create a first-year mentor program to connect incoming, first-generation college students with alumni from day one. The program currently has 100 active mentors and 160 mentees. Mentors go through formal training and the time commitment for alumni and students is approximately two hours per month. Their goal is to help with the transition to college, and begin building lasting relationships and support networks from the start.
The group also works with the first-generation student union to plan on-campus career events, such as industry and graduate school alumni panels. Alumni also participate in social events. For example, alumni are available during parent’s weekend to accompany students as a sort of surrogate family member, if the student’s parents are unable to attend. Finally, the group hosts alumni networking events in major cities for recent graduates, in order to maintain a connection and help them expand their professional networks.