Serving Our First-Generation University Students

By Donna Montoya

According to The Center for First-Generation Student Success, more than 50% of U.S. undergraduates are considered first-generation-students who come from families where neither parent completed a four-year college degree (NASPA, 2019). Many barriers for first-generation students influence the higher likelihood that they do not complete their education compared to continuing-generation peers (U.S. Department of Education, 2021). Career services professionals must understand the unique challenges first-generation students encounter and effectively support students as they navigate towards life-long career success.


First-generation students have fewer professional contacts and social capital than their continuing-generation counterparts. With 85% of jobs located in a hidden market (McIntyre, 2020), diminished social capital can stunt first-generation students’ careers. Gallup Research (2018) observed that "college graduates are almost two times more likely to be engaged at work if they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams (para 6)." However, most first-generation students must build a professional network from scratch (Career Advising and Professional Development, 2021).


Financial pressures are also common; 27% of first-generation students come from households earning $20,000 or less (MIT, 2021). Many first-generation students find themselves working to support not only their studies, but also their families. Time constraints prevent attendance at campus activities such as career fairs and leadership opportunities (Maietta, 2016). Often first-generation students must choose between unpaid internships and jobs less career oriented. Overwhelming financial pressures often result in taking paid jobs over unpaid internships. Internships, however, are the number one source for transitioning graduates into entry level employees (NACE, 2021). With nearly 40% of internships being unpaid (Boskamp, 2022), many first-generation students will experience career setbacks if they forgo experiential learning.


Photo By Linkedin Sales Solutions On UnsplashFirst-generation students also navigate other career readiness barriers. First-generation students lag behind their continuing-generation peers in career readiness domains such as networking, career management and professional communication. Only 16% of first-generation students work with career centers during their first year of college (MIT, 2021). Consequently, many first-generation students lack an understanding of career considerations such as how majors may or may not have to be directly aligned with career aspirations. The prevalence of internal and family pressure to succeed, lower self-efficacy, and higher instances of imposter syndrome influence many first-generation students, who may be skeptical about their own skills and abilities (Maietta, 2016).


Support Strategies

Career centers have an opportunity to support the unique situations of first-generation students through the strategies below. While career services professionals’ ability to implement these initiatives may vary depending on the structures and resources of their institutions, career services can multiply force and strategically design an inclusive environment for first-generation students, if they collaborate with faculty and other campus departments.

A holistic, paid internship program
Internship experience is the top qualifier between otherwise similar recent graduate candidates. Career centers can create a holistic internship program with employer partners to address many setbacks for first-generation students. Effective programs include ongoing support to students as they search for positions and financial assistance to students who participate in unpaid internships. Through various professional development workshops, career services professionals can also teach students self-reflection and career navigation skills in order to connect internships to academic and post-graduate work.

Mentorship programs
First-generation students do not feel they have a professional support system and need assistance navigating campus services (Maietta, 2016), as it is common that they do not know where to turn for help (EAB, n.d.). Meanwhile, they believe that college is a gateway to career and financial success (Brandeis, n.d.). First-year, first-generation students will benefit from a mentorship program especially, as having a mentor during transition times – such as entering college – improves students’ abilities to succeed and helps connect students with resources and advocates (Venable, 2021). A cohesive mentorship program for first-generation students closes these gaps. When designing a program, career services professionals need to create groups that connect entering first-generation students, first-generation peer mentors, and faculty/staff mentors. Networking opportunities with alumni at events and shared resources increase students’ confidence and connect academic interests and career goals.

Purposeful on-campus student employment program
On-campus student employment lends a prime opportunity to support students’ career growth and skills. A purposeful, institutional-wide on-campus student employment program can be instrumental in helping students. Career services can assist program leaders by showing the value of the following:

  • A manual, based on best practices, for on-campus employers including resources regarding career competencies, review processes, and workplace etiquette to discuss with students
  • Paid professional development workshops for student employees
  • Referrals to the career center for coaching, exploration, and connecting on-campus work with future goals
  • “Student Employee of the Year” and “On-Campus Student Employer of the Year” awards to celebrate and model excellence

Integrated career content in key courses
It is important to provide career support without adding to students’ workload. If career services professionals partner with faculty, they can embed support into students’ courses. Curricular initiatives remove time and cost constraints for low-income working students. Students also trust and rely on their professors. The more professors and career practitioners collaborate, the more students are engaged. Faculty partnerships could include career-focused presentations catered to each class’s unique focus of students (e.g., “internships for humanities majors” or “graduate programs in sociology”). Students could also complete career assignments that integrate actions into grades (e.g., writing or revising resumes, completing informational interviews, networking, or visiting the career center). Staff can also arrange mock interviews, alumni panels, and employer visits.


Addressing Unique Needs for a Successful Future

In conclusion, first-generation students often encounter unique obstacles, such as the lack of professional mentors, financial pressures, and time-constraints. Targeted initiatives including internship, mentorship and on-campus employment programs, and curricular-embedded career education enable career services professionals to empower students to overcome these challenges. Through ongoing reflection, learning, and innovate support, the career services field can better serve this population of students as they work towards life-long successes.



EAB. (n.d.). 7 fast facts about your first generation students. https://eab.com/insights/daily-briefing/student-affairs/7-fast-facts-about-your-first-generation-students/

Boskamp, Elsie. (2022, January 11). 18+ Internship statistics [2022]: Data, pay, and trends. Zippia. https://www.zippia.com/advice/internship-statistics/

MIT. (2021, July 9). Career guidance for first-generation students. https://capd.mit.edu/blog/2021/07/09/career-guidance-for-first-generation-students/

Brandeis University Academic Services. (n.d.) Facts about first-generation college students. https://www.brandeis.edu/academic-services/sssp/i-am/facts.html

Gallup Research. (2018). Measuring college and university outcomes. https://www.gallup.com/education/194264/strada-gallup-alumni-survey.aspx

Maietta, H. (2016, November 01). Career development needs of first-generation students. National Association of Colleges and Employers. https://www.naceweb.org/career-development/special-populations/career-development-needs-of-first-generation-students/

McIntyre, M. (2020, December 07). 85% of jobs are secured via networking: Here’s how to do it right. Business 2 Community. https://www.business2community.com/human-resources/85-of-jobs-are-secured-via-networking-heres-how-to-do-it-right-02368331

National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). (2021). Career Readiness: Competencies for a Career-Ready Workforce. https://www.naceweb.org/uploadedfiles/files/2021/resources/nace-career-readiness-competencies-revised-apr-2021.pdf

NASPA. (2019). First-generation college students: Demographic characteristics and postsecondary enrollment. https://firstgen.naspa.org/files/dmfile/FactSheet-01.pdf

U.S. Department of Education. (2021, April 26). Supporting first-generation and low-income students beyond the college acceptance letter. https://blog.ed.gov/2021/04/supporting-first-generation-low-income-students-beyond-college-acceptance-letter/

The Hunt Institute. (2021, February 26). Supporting first-generation students through a new COVID-19 environment. https://hunt-institute.org/resources/2021/02/supporting-first-generation-students-through-a-new-covid-19-environment/

Venable, M. (2021, December 10). How college mentors can foster student success. Best Colleges. https://www.bestcolleges.com/blog/college-mentor-student-success/



Donna MontoyaDonna Montoya is the assistant director of career development at Linfield University where she leads strategic partnership initiatives and career advising for liberal arts students. Donna is on the leadership committee and staff mentor for Linfield’s First Scholars program which provides a wrap-around experience for incoming first-generation students. She holds an M.B.A. and is a Certified Career Services Practitioner through NCDA. Donna can be reached at https://www.linkedin.com/in/donnabanwarthmontoya/

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Deneen Pennington   on Thursday 06/02/2022 at 08:59 AM

Excellent article! As a first-generation college student, I appreciate the information you are sharing to help students like me.

Paul R. Timmins   on Monday 07/04/2022 at 02:24 AM

All of your suggestions are really valuable! Thanks for the thoughtful ideas of how we can direct our work to support first generation students.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.