Many of the students I’ve taught in an academic internship program have been first-generation and low-income students. Often, they seek career opportunities that will lead to a better life for themselves and their families, but give up because they feel behind from the moment they start. They feel that they don’t stand a chance when compared to their peers who come from privileged backgrounds.
To fix that, we need to think holistically about how the life experiences and circumstances of first-generation and lower-income students differ from those of students from elite backgrounds. This gap has been described as the “hidden curriculum” of professional norms and contexts that schools never explicitly teach, but some young people internalize through growing up in elite environments.
First-generation and low-income students need career advising from the moment they arrive at higher-ed institutions because their families are often unable to lay the groundwork for them. But once they have access to it, they are ready to hit the ground running with the same ambition that got them admitted.
To ensure that happens, such students should be welcomed and met with opportunities that provide needed background information and mentorship from day one. Waiting to gain the knowledge organically — through classes and serendipitous encounters — often means falling behind in the recruitment timeline and facing competition from peers with multiple internships and advanced workplace skills on their resumes. Many become intimidated and give up on pursuing dream jobs.
Those who persevere usually impress interviewers with their drive and resourcefulness, but that’s when another challenge can surface: cultural fit. First-gen students tell me about fearing small talk, because even well-intentioned questions often lead to awkward conversations. A student from Colorado gets asked about her favorite ski resorts, only to respond that her family could not afford skiing. Another student dreads questions about her parents, because she does not like sharing that her father has been deported.
They go to information sessions and learn that they are supposed to network, but they report having no idea how to talk to older professionals. Moreover, they often feel inadequate in terms of “relatability” and “polish” that many careers demand. While many young people turn for encouragement and guidance to their families, first-generation students can get plenty of love, but not enough practical advice.
Some describe not even being able to explain their career aspirations to their parents, while their classmates receive expert help at any hour of the day or night. Universities can help by introducing first-generation students to successful professionals who were themselves first-gen or low-income students and can offer advice that resonates in combination with relatable experiences.
Furthermore, just as first-generation and low-income students need training in how to feel confident networking, professionals interviewing first-generation and low-income students should understand how to ask questions that build positive connections without unintended condescension: recruitment of first gen and low-income students is a two-way street that also requires work on the part of interviewers.
Students from non-elite backgrounds want to work hard and change their families’ station in life, but they often find themselves swimming upstream, even when their abilities have secured them a spot at a prestigious college. Giving them a real chance means acknowledging the enormous value of family support, and designing programs to compensate for its absence.
Student clubs that promote professional development are also a good way to obtain mentorship and advice while building one’s support network, but even they have barriers to entry. Applicants are expected to submit polished resumes and speak convincingly about their professional interests during the first weeks of their freshman year.
Although I appreciate the leadership role that some institutions, including my own, have taken in addressing these challenges, students who need the support most often do not take full advantage. That’s partly because first-generation and lower-income students do not have a roadmap of what they should be doing from the beginning.
Pursuing competitive careers requires a strong record of previous achievement — a record that students from elite backgrounds often start building before some first-gen and low-income students even realize that it’s expected of them.
Meanwhile, first-generation students are still acclimating: they may be learning how to create a resume and figuring out what professional options exist. Even as they become adept at navigating the landscape of career opportunities, divisions can exacerbate as students from elite backgrounds leverage their networks to secure summer internships, while lower-income students may have family care 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 professor of Instruction in the Chicago Field Studies program at Northwestern University.