First-Generation Students Need Your Help. Are You Providing It?


Your throat is dry and your palms are sweaty. A quick glance in a reflective building nearby shows that you don’t look quite as frazzled on the outside as you feel inside your head. Your heart races as you approach the door and pull it open. You’d love to run in the opposite direction, but you force yourself to continue walking forward toward the reception desk.

Remember those feelings you experienced the first time you went on a job interview?

For most college grads, applying and interviewing for their first job stirs up a lot of emotions: anxiety, fear, nausea. But some people who are going through the post-grad job search have a huge advantage: the support and guidance they receive from their families.

Not all college grads come from the same background, though. Colleges and employers have begun to identify a population known as “first-generation college students” (FGCS). These first-generation students struggle with the same job search fears and frustrations, but their parents or guardians don’t have the educational or professional background to help usher them through college or on to their careers.

We caught up with Brianne Wada, Internship and Diversity Programs Advisor and Manager of the First-Generation College Student Mentor Program at the University of Southern California to learn more about this specific population of students and how employers can make sure that they are sensitive to their needs throughout the recruitment and hiring process as well as in the early stages of their careers.

bri headshot

What is the definition a “first-generation” college student or graduate?

A first-generation college student is defined as someone whose parent(s)/legal guardian(s) have not completed a bachelor’s degree.

What are some of the specific concerns or issues that might affect the first-generation population both in college and in the transition to their professional careers?

Many First Generation College Students (FGCS) enter college with limited knowledge about how to successfully navigate a university. They are more likely to work part-time, live off campus, and have lower levels of extracurricular, non-course related, and volunteer involvement when compared to their non-first-generation counterparts. As FGCS start their career in a university, it is critical for them to feel supported academically and socially as many of these students are ridden with self-doubt about their capability to excel in and complete college. These same feelings resurface when FGCS transition into the workforce.

With a perceived lack of support, and a desire for stronger professional and personal relationships, a first-generation graduate may also not know who to talk with if s/he is struggling in a new career or feeling overwhelmed.

What are some of the key elements of the First-Generation College Student Mentor Program at USC?

Target audience: Undergraduate (sophomore–senior) first-generation college students

Learning Outcomes/Goals for Students

  • Develop an elevator pitch.
  • Develop a plan to achieve their career goal.
  • Identify at least three best practices for an internship/job search.
  • Define at least one tool to develop a strong mentor-mentee relationship.


  • Kick-Off Event/Networking Mixer
  • Résumé & Mock Interview Workshop
  • Social Media & Mock Career Fair Workshop
  • Fellowships & Grad School
  • Industry Night
  • End of the Year Celebration

You can learn more about the program here.


How can employers ensure that they are providing adequate opportunities to the first-generation population?

Create intentional community-building opportunities that will also broaden perspective(s). This can range from networking mixers to résumé review days to mentoring programs in the workplace. Due to the probable lack of guidance from influential figures such as close relatives, FGCS often need an arena where a knowledgeable and experienced person provides a supportive role and encourages reflection and learning to facilitate one’s career development.

I think this is, in general, what all employees ultimately want; and it can help a company create loyalty and increase employee retention.

Let’s say that an employer would like to offer a program similar to the First-Generation College Student Mentor Program but in a professional setting. How should they go about setting it up? How could they measure its success?

Develop a seminar series that focuses on identity development, leadership skills, and successful navigation of office culture. First-generation college students need to learn from mentors and practice techniques that will allow them to successfully navigate political terrain. It is also important to find mentors who are also first-generation college students. The shared common identity plays a special role in developing trust.

If a seminar series can’t occur, use technology—develop a newsletter or create a LinkedIn group to provide online professional development. Staff members can also complete professional activities such as conducting an informational interview with someone within the organization or connecting with the team via LinkedIn.

Success could be measured in various ways. One way is through an assessment of what the employees learned from the program/sessions. A quick survey asking the participant about what s/he learned can inform your practices.

Another way success can be measured is through the number of employees that are promoted after participating in the program. This can essentially illustrate that it creates a pipeline of future leaders.

Is there anything we haven’t covered related to first-generation graduates and university recruiting that you’d like to add?

Try to offer paid opportunities. Financial barriers and familial commitments can also limit participation in the ability to travel to interviews/internships. In this economy, when someone has to make $33 an hour just to be able to afford an apartment in Los Angeles, it’s hard to “get by” as a college student.

Work with your local college. Contact university student assemblies and connect with the college’s cultural centers, Veterans’ Association/Office, LGBT Resource Center, and Office of Disabilities. Being a first-generation college student can affect all intersectionality of identities. ​


The next step: Brianne suggests creating a seminar series or even an online space where FGCS at your organization can connect with mentors and each other. You might want to start by identifying potential mentors (ideally people who were FGCS themselves) and asking them about the types of professional development and support they would have found most useful early in their careers.


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