Supporting First-Generation College Students in Career Counseling

By Yolanda Norman posted 09-12-2017 07:43

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As a first-generation college student, I never stepped foot inside of my campus’s career center until I already had a job offer. 

It wasn’t because I didn’t want to visit or thought I knew everything about preparing for my career, but I had no idea this service was available to me until my senior year of college. I’m sure my career center did everything career centers do with marketing services, putting on events, encouraging students to visit, and supporting all students on their career journeys. Somehow, as a first-generation college student athlete, I missed the messages and didn’t find my way to a career adviser until my final year as an undergraduate student.

Recently, this peaked my interest about how our current first-generation college students are hearing of our services and why they are, or are not, using the services to their fullest extent. Here’s what I discovered on our campus after asking a few of these trailblazers:


Some first-generation college students are still trying to find out who they are. This identity of being “firstgen” may not be something the student can easily define and for some, it is an identity the student may even want to hide. It’s important for our campuses to have an official campus definition of what a first-generation college student is and to ensure our career centers know that definition to fully support these students. Recently, our entire professional staff discovered we are all first-generation college graduates. Now only did we celebrate one another when we found this out, but we are intentionally looking for ways to share this accomplishment with all our students to create a sense of pride in being firstgen.


One pioneer told me that both she and her friends know of the career center, but choose not to schedule an appointment until they have “got it all together." Of course as a responsible counselor, I wanted to dig deeper and encouraged her to share what “got it all together” meant. She said she thought she had to have a perfect resume, have worked for several years, and understood her career path BEFORE visiting our office.

She also mentioned that her parents were not able to help her understand how to get a job after college and she had a fear of being judged by career advisers of not being ready. Her words helped me to realize that we have an opportunity to combat these messages of “not being good enough” that many of my firstgen students grapple with almost daily.

So what can we do when facing either student dilemma?

• Create a door tag in your office that says “FirstGen College Grad” or “FirstGen College Ally”.
• Create a door tag in your office that says “FirstGen College Grad” or “FirstGen College Ally”.
• Seek out the official first-generation college student campus definition & share it with your team 
• If you are a first-generation college graduate, work your story into class presentations, blogs, or even counseling sessions. Help students to identify what success looks like for firstgen.
• Intentionally combat the “perfection message” that students are receiving.

I’ll continue amplifying the voices of first-generation college students here on my campus in hopes that this unique student group benefits from the amazing work done by all of you.