Lessons Learned from a First-Generation College Student (Part 3)

Welcome to the final installment in the Lessons Learned from a First-Generation College Student series!  These last few tips are going to help you continue to follow a path that ensures a well-rounded college experience that prepares you for the future.  This blog is going to unpack the importance of a proactive approach to career development, engaging in student activities, pursuing practical passions, and finding a mentor.

In case you missed it, you can read Part 1 of Lessons Learned from a First-Generation College Student: (1-3) Networking, internships and graduate school and Part 2: (4-7) Making the most of campus resources, actively engaging with peers and faculty, self-advocacy, and embracing your identity.

8. Start Career Development Early

According to a national survey administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 87.9% of incoming freshmen cited “to be able to get a better job” as an important reason to attend college (2012).  Even though I was guilty of it myself, I find it very interesting that one of the major motivators for students to attend college is to secure a well-paying job, but career development often gets put on the backburner.  In fact, recently I spoke with a student about making an appointment with a Career Consultant, and their response was “I will, but I’m just a freshman.”  It is never too early to plan for your future career, especially if one of your primary reasons to attend college is to secure a stable income.  

I encourage you to research career fields, reaching out about informational interviews, and looking at job postings to gain a sense of the skills employers are looking for.  Explore all the things and set short term and long-term career goals!

9. Get Involved!

When I first started attending Binghamton University, I was not ready for the level of academic rigor expected of me.  Like most students I’ve advised over the years, I was focused on doing well on academic assignments and maintaining a solid GPA.  College is a holistic experience.  Embrace it.  Strive to find a balance between devoting time to your classes, while also dedicating time to managing and developing your career.

Get involved in extracurriculars and student organizations. Think about exploring activities, clubs, museum exhibits, and events that extend beyond your affinity groups and what’s familiar.  Own your identity and stay active in clubs that focus on first-generation, ethnic, racial, or gender identity, while exploring potential hobbies or careers of interest too.  When you find a club of interest, pursue a leadership role.  College is about developing wide-ranging skills that will set you up for success.  There are so many on-campus and off-campus opportunities that students can take part in to develop skills outside of the classroom, so take advantage of them while you’re still a student!

10. Pursue Practical Passions

I entered college intending to become a psychiatrist. I wanted to be one of those people making six-figures renting a perfectly designed space in a high-rise. Psychiatrists in movies lived this life, so it seemed pretty legit. Unfortunately, as a first-generation college student, I had little understanding of career fields and the steps that would lead me to them.  From my perspective, securing a doctor, lawyer, or psychiatrist position meant someone truly made it, so that’s where I needed to be. I quickly found that pursuing a science-based field wasn’t the path for me. Beyond my personal experience, as an advisor, I’ve had countless conversations with first-generation students about needing to become a doctor or work in finance to obtain a high-income. However, these students were not finding success in their classes.  

My advice is to pursue practical passions. Don’t let money or passion be your sole motivation. Find a balance between your passion, and your economic aspirations, while being practical about the expectations associated with that career.  Due to the financial pressure that often comes with being a first-generation student, we can’t afford to pursue a career track that isn’t working. Talk to a Career Consultant about economically feasible ways to get where you want to be.

11. Find a Mentor

Attending college can be an extremely isolating experience for first-generation students.  We move from an environment we were accustomed to, to a new space with new expectations and cultural norms.  Navigating the dynamics of college, while being far from your social support networks can be exhausting.  At the same time, as first-generation college students, it’s unlikely that your family will have insight into the challenges of college, and that’s perfectly okay.  One of the best things you can do is to find a mentor.  During your time on campus, you might meet a professor or advisor you grow to respect; this is a good place to build that mentorship.  B-First is a first-generation mentor initiative right here on campus that you can get involved in as well!  When you’re working with someone who shares similar experiences and wants to see you achieve success, they can act as a guide when you need career, personal, or academic advice.  College doesn’t have to be isolating or more difficult than it needs to be. 

Being a first-generation college student has its obstacles, but don’t lose sight of managing and developing your career as early as possible. Focus on what you can control and make the most of your college experience.

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