4 Challenges First-Generation College Students Face During Their Job Search

By being conscientious about the challenges that first-generation graduates grapple with, companies can minimize the barriers that might exist in their hiring processes.

For many college seniors and recent graduates, the job search is a time filled with stress and uncertainty. But for some students, there’s another added pressure: the lack of parental guidance to help navigate the working world after college.


Approximately 33 percent of higher education students today are first-generation college students, which is defined as someone whose parents or legal guardians have not completed a bachelor’s degree. From test prep to navigating financial aid, first-generation students face countless hurdles to get into college in the first place – and those challenges don’t disappear once they get to college. In fact, first-generation college graduates face a unique set of challenges when entering the professional workforce.


As a first-generation college graduate who started working less than a year ago, I sometimes feel like I blindly entered the workforce. I was forced to learn critical life skills on my own, and that’s not because my parents didn’t want to help me. They couldn’t. Neither of them have experience going after a job that requires a college degree. So while my colleagues’ parents helped them negotiate salaries, proof a resume, and calculate the cost of living after taxes, I used Google. I felt like that personal contact was missing, which made me a bit self-conscious when submitting my first application or stepping into an interview.


After speaking to other first-generation professionals, it became clear that they also felt a barrier between them and their dream job. Their skills, certifications, and work ethic have made them excellent candidates, but they weren’t always given a chance to show their full potential. To help ease this challenging hiring process, they’ve opened up about their experience navigating the working world without parental guidance, and offered a few suggestions for companies to make their hiring process more inclusive for first-generation graduates.


Some companies only recruit at the most elite schools around the country.

A large number of hiring managers believe a candidate’s alma mater goes hand-in-hand with job performance. The problem with this mentality is that recruiters are missing out on all the first-generation students who don’t have access to a top 10 or even a top 50 school.


About 50 percent of first-generation college students attend a community college, and only 7 percent attend a private college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).


Megan Aguirre, a first-gen graduate and a current administrative assistant at Cornell Tech in Manhattan, New York, has given the graduate admissions team a few suggestions for recruiting more first-generation undergraduate students. She’s encouraged them to shift from mostly recruiting at elite institutions and look at historically black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and other schools with a high minority population.


“I’ve told my team that they need to physically go to these schools and talk to students face to face,” Megan says. “First gens don’t always feel confident applying to certain jobs, so meeting with recruiters can give them a boost.”


Hiring managers can also contact organizations that specifically help first-generation students get through college and land a job. Center for First-Generation Student Success has educational programs and public studies on how their students are transforming the workforce.


“There are so many bright students who are completely looked over during the hiring process and it’s a shame because there’s something we all can do to prevent this,” Megan says.


When talking to first-generation students, it’s important to keep in mind that the professional world can be completely new to them. They may not have the parental guidance that’s helpful when editing a resume, filling out an application, or getting an interview with a well-connected colleague.


We don’t have as many (or any) personal connections to help get us an interview.

When applying for jobs, we always hear, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” This is a scary reality for someone who doesn’t have parents who are well-connected and have to solely rely on connections they meet in school.


“My dad works in trucking and my mom recently moved back to Colombia, so they definitely didn’t have any connections in my field,” Megan says. “My only option was to network really hard with all the students in my classes.”


While referrals from current employees can be a great source of talent, giving an edge to your coworker’s relative in the hiring process creates an uneven playing field. Diversify your recruiting strategies to ensure your pipeline includes candidates from all different backgrounds, and not just candidates from your preferred schools and personal connections.


Financial barriers can keep us from taking an unpaid internship or relocating for a job.

A common workplace practice is to hire student interns who work unpaid or receive a small stipend in exchange for college credits. While this system is beneficial for businesses that don’t have the financial means to pay interns, it also causes these companies to overlook candidates who can’t work for free.


First-generation students often come from low-income households. Approximately 27 percent of first-generation students come from families that make $20,000 or less annually, compared to 6% of non-first-generation freshman. And since these students are less likely to take an unpaid internship, they’re also less likely to get hired full-time by said company.


Jessica Vongxay is another first-generation graduate who’s been a certified physical therapist since August. Throughout undergrad, Jessica had no choice but to take unpaid internships. Her program requires students to complete these internships in exchange for class credit. And because she wasn’t getting paid, she decided to look at internships close to home.


“We’re always told the place you intern last is most likely where you’ll get hired,” Jessica says. “I really needed my last internship to be in my home town because I couldn’t afford to live out of state. I moved back in with my mom to save money and even help her pay bills.”


These financial barriers also show up during the job-seeking process. Requiring that candidates pay their own way to an interview with a company will exclude candidates who don’t have the financial support to cover travel and lodging. And a job that requires a move to an expensive city can be a challenge for students who don’t have the funds necessary to get situated before receiving their first paycheck.  


To address both of these systemic barriers, employers can alter their hiring process in a few ways. If you rely on an internship program for entry-level recruiting, be sure that program covers the cost of living for your interns – otherwise, look outside your pool of unpaid interns. Additionally, companies can cover the cost of travel for interviews or conduct on-campus interviews. Finally, while providing relocation packages may seem costly, it can ensure a candidate isn’t turning down your offer because of financial constraints, or that a new employee isn’t starting a new job stressed about money.


Unconscious bias often surfaces during an interview, especially if a team lacks diversity.

During Jessica’s interview process for her current job, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to bring up the fact that she is a first-generation college graduate.


“I don’t want anyone to think my life is a sob story,” Jessica says. “If I were to bring it up, I’d want to talk about how not having my parents’ help with the application process has made me super independent and dedicated.”


Jessica’s parents also speak little English, making her bilingual and fluent in Laotian. She feels that interviewers, however, don’t fully understand the benefits of having a bilingual employee. For nearly 20% of first-generation students, English is not their first language. But this doesn’t mean these students are faced with a language barrier. In fact, these students can give a company a competitive edge since they have the opportunity to reach more people.


“I think more first-generation students would feel more comfortable talking about their personal life if they felt like the person interviewing them is interested in how their background makes them a good employee,” Jessica says. “No one wants to talk about their parents or life problems in a job interview.”


Walking into an office where you’re a clear minority can be intimidating, along with the fact that first-generation college students are more likely to struggle with self-esteem issues due to the lack of guidance from home, and the fear of asking for help in the classroom. When looking at racial and ethnic demographics, 42% of African American students and 48% of Latino students at four-year institutions were first-generation students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2011-2012 report. But most workplaces that first-generation graduates hope to be a part of lack diversity, especially in fields such as tech, finance, or consulting.


“Looking back, I was most comfortable the time an Indian woman interviewed me,” Jessica says. “She clearly saw I was another minority student and didn’t ask me any questions about my ethnicity or family that would make me uncomfortable.”



Employers that care about recruiting the most talented candidates for their entry-level roles should understand that some of those candidates face more barriers than others when entering the workforce. By being conscientious about the challenges that first-generation professionals grapple with, companies can minimize the barriers that might exist in their current hiring processes and find the best candidates for the job, regardless of their background.


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