First-Generation College Students on Graduating into a Pandemic

By Jessica Bacal, Shayla Bezjak-Martinez, Karime Gutierrez, Dionna Jenkins, Destiny Wiley-Yancy Jun 02, 2021

Media coverage in The New York Times, on network TV and elsewhere highlighted stories of first-generation college students during the COVID-19 pandemic. While research had already shown that financial stress, a sense of guilt about leaving one’s family behind, and a struggle to fit in could impact the first-generation undergraduate experience, these issues intensified during the pandemic. Now that graduation has arrived, first generation students will join their peers in preparing to find work that pays the rent and advances their career goals. The assumption may be that once they graduate, these first-generation students are basically in the same leaky boat as their peers- just with more student loans.

That’s not the case.

We are four women who were first-generation college students who have been meeting since we graduated from Smith College into the pandemic summer of 2020. Over monthly Zoom calls we have shared work rejections, discussed our personal lives, advised and teased each other in the interest of companionship and support. Now, a year after we started meeting, we’ve reflected on some of the logistical and psychological costs that come with being the first in your family to seek footing in the white-collar professional world. Some complex and nuanced issues have arisen, and in the interest of offering support to others like us, we want to share what we’ve learned with this year’s graduating class of first-generation professionals who will also be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Seek guidance in navigating financial conversations with family

As first-generation college students, we were accustomed to helping our families financially- sending money home from on-campus work and summer jobs. But now, we have our own expenses to tend to including: student loans, car payments and various other bills. We want to save for personal emergencies and start building our retirement funds. 

Some of us have found that because our instinct is to be generous with our families, it’s harder to save. There’s a sense of shame in the thought of keeping for oneself what one could give. This shame is  compounded by the psychological cost of navigating the conflict alone — as we’ve never had clear guidance about how to navigate financial conversations with relatives. And while our alma mater, Smith College, has a helpful financial preparedness program, there has yet to be a workshop called, “How Much Money Should You Give Your Mom?”

During one of our monthly Zoom meetings, we discussed this conflict and even brought in a guest speaker, Dr. Jeannette Frett, who explained how she navigated this same financial conversation with her family. Dr. Frett, who was also a first-generation college student, wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania about first-and second-generation Black and Hispanic young professionals. She shared her data and talked about her study’s participants. Each of these young people had at least one supporter who believed in them completely; in addition, they’d attended a college-to-career transition program called MLT (Management Leadership for Tomorrow), which offered coaching and mentorship. Dr. Frett’s participants dealt with financial struggle; while most of them had received financial aid during college, they had still needed to take out loans, and some were concerned about how long it would take to pay these off (Frett p. 86). The burden of this debt, Dr. Frett said, can be compounded by the desire to provide for family (Frett p. 72), which can lead to financial anxiety. 

The anxiety is real. The median incomes of first generation professionals are lower than those of peers with at least one parent who attended college, according to a new analysis from the Pew Research Center. Beyond a median income gap of over $30,000, Pew also found a "wealth gap," a difference in the cumulative value of household belongings like "cars, homes, financial assets, businesses…minus outstanding debts." These kinds of assets can keep a household afloat during an emergency, and can contribute to retirement. 

Dr. Frett talked about her own journey to financial security and advised us to set financial boundaries with our families. “If God blessed me with these resources,” she told the group, “I have a responsibility to be wise about how I use them." If you can find a trusted first-generation professional with a similar experience, see if they are willing to share how they’ve handled the conflict between a sense of responsibility toward family, an inclination towards generosity, and the necessity to save. It may help to know that you’re not alone in managing this situation.

Seek programs and resources that are targeted toward first-generation professionals

While creating a small group of peers is wonderful (and we recommend it!) there are also entire organizations designed to help young professionals from underrepresented backgrounds. For example, MLT, where Dr. Frett based her research, is a resource for people from Black, Latinx and Native American backgrounds, that provides mentorship programs for college students, as well as early and mid-career professionals. Black in Corporate is a new platform that offers guidance for Black professionals working in corporate spaces and the Black Career Women’s Network has resources designed specifically for Black women. Code2040 connects underrepresented people in tech with opportunities at tech companies, through fellowships and community events.

Another great resource is a new book we’ve put on our reading list: “The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right” (Harvard Business Review Press 2021). The book’s author, Gorick Ng, was a first-generation college student who worked in management consulting and investment banking before taking a job as a career advisor at Harvard College. He specializes in coaching first-generation and low-income students, and the book includes answers to the kinds of questions one might ask such as: “How do I ask for help without looking incompetent?” “How can I build relationships while working remotely?” Ng’s website includes a section called "free stuff" which offers the first twenty-five pages of the book and a "Workplace Jargon Glossary." 

For advice on the day-to-day reality of being financially independent, we recommend accessing any financial literacy resources provided by your alma mater. 

Find constructive ways to build rejection tolerance
rnSeveral of us felt intense pressure to find work after college. When you’re the first in your family to attend college, you’re expected to land a job. The expectation may be that this job should earn beyond what others in your family make. After all, that’s why you worked so hard, and made so many sacrifices, isn’t it? Graduating into a pandemic and record-level unemployment was not what we or our families expected. Soon after graduation, one of our group members, Shayla, got a job working part-time as maintenance staff at a gym. At a family gathering, her grandmother said casually, "Oh, so did you go to college for four years to be a janitor?" It hurt.

Meanwhile, the job rejections kept coming. She quit her job as a janitor and found a part time job on Craigslist as an art studio assistant. At the same time, Shayla started to bartend at a hotel on weeknights. Within the month she was fired from her job at the gallery and was soon laid off from her bartending job. She got her hopes up about an exciting job in college admissions — but she didn’t get it. 

“It was tough being rejected,” Shayla recalls. “I’m used to accomplishing a lot, and felt really bad about myself for not having a job.”

Our group’s facilitator, Jessica, who wrote, “The Rejection that Changed My Life: 25+ Powerful Women on Being Let Down, Turning It Around, and Burning it Up at Work” (Penguin Random House, 2021), offered this advice: You don’t need to have a career just yet. Keep applying, and do a little bit of work towards your goals every day. Use the college’s alumnae network, and follow-up when people don’t get back to you. Rejection tolerance is a muscle, and dealing with it will get easier — it’s something you can even practice. One story in Jessica’s book is from a writer whose ambition was to get 100 rejections, and our group may take on a similar project ourselves; even aiming for three rejections could be good practice.

Allow yourself to time rejuvenate by taking mental health breaks

Relaxing was something that felt new to most of us. We were taking classes, working, trying to have social lives, while also trying to help with family issues from afar – a sibling in trouble, a health emergency, strained finances. While daunting to those of us in the group, we found that our experiences were not unique; a recent study at Skidmore College showed that first-generation undergraduates got less sleep than their peers. Widely-cited research from the Pell Institute has shown that due to financial and emotional constraints on low-income and first-generation students, they may be less engaged in extracurricular experiences that boost college success- opportunities like study groups, clubs and organizations. They may also be less likely to use resources such as academic support centers and on-campus counseling services. 

One member of our group, Dionna, talked about the strangeness of moving beyond survival mode. She had worked so hard through high school and college to get to this place- a decent-paying job in education that she likes. She has an apartment, her own space away from family pressures. And suddenly, she also has time to do what she wants.

“It’s not so much adjusting to adult life that’s hard,” Dionna told the group. “Growing up, I knew I had to keep taking care of business and doing well in school. And now that’s over, and I’m on my own, I get to live. So it’s like- how do I do that? Who am I really? Before, I wasn’t able to really think about who I was in a deeper way. I’m trying to figure out what it’s like to truly live and not just survive."

A few of us felt guilty for having fun, especially while we were still looking for work. Were we allowed to just enjoy ourselves? We found that having fun allowed us to clear our heads before returning to our job searches. According to the Harvard Business Review, stepping away from the job-hunt with activities like exercise, meditation, journaling, or even just listening to music can help job-seekers maintain equilibrium and can support perseverance. Therapy also became a useful tool for some of us, and helped with processing the job search but also the sense of feeling unmoored, lonely, and uncertain about our life paths beyond college.

As our first post-college year ends, we’ve finally started to exhale and celebrate. Last July, only two of us were working full-time. Now all of us have jobs that feel congruent with our goals and interests; one will begin a fully-funded doctoral program next year. Recently Dionna said, “Being a first-gen professional is about trying to reconcile feeling proud that I’ve come this far so quickly and that I’m still at a disadvantage in many ways just by virtue of where I come from. I feel vulnerable because I’m 22 and I’m out here by myself.” Everyone on the Zoom nodded, but she wasn’t by herself. Our group heard her. And we kept talking.

Jessica Bacal directs The Narratives Project at Smith college, and is the editor of Mistakes I Made at Work (2014) and The Rejection That Changed My Life (2021), both published by Penguin Random House.

Shayla Bezjak-Martinez graduated from Smith College in 2020 with a BA in sociology and education. She now works as an Admission Counselor at Harvey Mudd College and hopes to continue to support first-gen college students navigate higher education.

Karime Gutierrez, a first generation American, graduated from Smith College in 2020 with a BA in Biological Sciences and French Studies. During her time at Smith she gained an interest in plants and developing ways to bring more diverse voices into the conservation and botanic garden industry. She is currently working as a Nursery Assistant for the Native Plant Trust organization.

Dionna Jenkins, originally from New York, NY, graduated from Smith College in 2020 with a BA in English. Having had an interest in educational equity for many years, she is now a College Access Advisor at an education-focused nonprofit organization in Rhode Island, where she hopes to build the foundation that focuses on equitable access and opportunity for students at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels.

Destiny Wiley-Yancy, originally from South Los Angeles, graduated from Smith College in 2020 with a BA in Africana Studies and Government. During her time in undergrad, she developed a deep interest in using storytelling and research as tools to highlight Black women’s activism throughout history. She currently resides in Washington D.C. where she works for the US Department of Justice.