Lessons Learned from a First-Generation College Student (Part 1)

Since there is much diversity amongst first-generation college students, all our experiences are unique.  We vary in age, geographic location, family dynamics, support systems, and the racial and ethnic identities of first-generation college students is relatively diverse.  Despite all these differences, one concept is clear: there is a steep learning curve when figuring out “how to college” that comes with learning by facing adversities and making mistakes. I’ve had the chance to look back on my experience as a first-generation college student, and one of my biggest takeaways is that I could have done more while I was in college.  To help you learn from my mistakes, I’m going to share some tips for success.

1. Network 

As a college student, I very much downplayed the benefits of networking.  I thought if I kept my head down and put most of my effort into my academic assignments, everything would work out for me.  People are rewarded simply by working hard, right?  Let me tell you, I couldn’t have been more misinformed.  It’s difficult for people to identify the skills that make you a great potential employee if they don’t get to know who you are. 

Start thinking about your current network. Do these individuals have well-paying white-collar jobs? Your answer to that question likely is “no.” When I reflect on the people I met pre-college, most of these individuals do not have college degrees. These individuals hold positions in retail, food service, or physically demanding positions.  One benefit of attending college is having access to a network of white-collar professionals. According to a LinkedIn survey from 2016, 85% of companies fill jobs via networking. You should start building positive relationships with professors, academic advisors, alumni, career consultants, and other white-collar professionals so you can position yourself to be on the radar of upcoming well-paying jobs.

This advice is easier said than done. Building a network can be intimidating.  It can be hard to get motivated about networking on a college campus or professional atmosphere when you lack a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar environment.  Start by building your network in spaces where you feel a bit more comfortable on-campus.  After that, set goals to push yourself out of your comfort zone.  The sooner you start the better!  

2. Pursue Internships or Micro-Internships

Part of my role at the Fleishman Center is coordinating internship opportunities for Binghamton University’s academic internship program (CDCI). Let me let everyone in on a little secret – I never participated in an internship when I was in college. For me, the word “internship” might as well be translated to “please work for free” and this girl needed the support of a paid position. 

But, knowing what I know now, internships are excellent chances to start networking in fields or organizations of interest.  At Binghamton University, you can participate in credit-bearing internships throughout the semester when, potentially, there is a little less pressure to work full-time. I recommend the Johnson City Mentor Program because you can serve as a role model to underserved, low-income students at a local middle school. You can also apply to summer funding opportunities for unpaid internships. If an internship is not financially feasible, build up your skills with a micro-internship, which is a short-term project-based approach to start networking and building your skills.

One last point about internships, short-term struggle can lead to long-term gains. The experience an internship adds to your resume and the networking opportunities alone are worth it.  For instance, a volunteer experience connected me to a job opportunity in a field I am very passionate about.

3. Don’t Rule Out Graduate School


As an undergraduate, the thought of agreeing to more loans to continue my education was daunting and not a realistic possibility for me.  However, upon speaking to faculty members in my field, I found that most individuals get paid to attend graduate school!  When applying to graduate school, make sure you are applying to diversity, teaching, and research fellowships.  Fellowships ensure that you are building your resume/CV while covering most of the cost of tuition(other than fees) and connecting you with a network of likeminded people. Speaking to students that are unaware of these funding opportunities for graduate school and helping students apply for fellowships is one of my favorite past times as a career consultant. 

Stay tuned next week for part 2 of Lessons Learned from a First-Generation College Student!

By Sophia Givre ’11, MA ’13, PhD ’17
Sophia Givre ’11, MA ’13, PhD ’17 Career Consultant Sophia Givre ’11, MA ’13, PhD ’17