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First generation college students need more than a degree – East Bay Times

Recently, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released the numbers for job openings and labor turnover for the month of August. Notable among the information is the increased number of people who quit their jobs. In fact, 4.3 million people voluntarily left their jobs — the highest number recorded this year.

With the dearth of positions, it’s a sellers market. For the first time in a long time, this means that workers are in the driver’s seat. Most would think that anyone looking for a job in this market would have an easy time of it. Well, not if you are a first-generation student entering the professional workforce.

A first-generation student is by definition the first person in their immediate family to obtain a college degree. In the nation’s largest public system of higher education, the California State University, first-generation students make up 32% of the incoming freshman class of 2021. Most of these students will also be the first in their families to enter the workforce in a professional environment four to six years from now. Unlike non-first-generation professionals, they will lack the social capital to aid in their job search.

Simply put, their family and friends do not have the connections to those who make the hiring decisions. First-generation professionals will experience a starting salary that is 12% below their non-first-generation peers, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Unfortunately, the gap will persist for a decade.

If you believe we live in a meritocracy, you are understandably confused as to why this is important. In America, individual hard work and effort matters most, so if you can’t get a job or didn’t negotiate a better salary, that’s your fault, right? Not necessarily.

With my more than 30 years of experience in the workplace and 25 years of supervising student employees at a large public institution, I have had a front-row center seat that allows me to watch first-generation students navigate and negotiate their first job offers and salary offers.

I am also one of them. As the granddaughter of a pecan sheller in San Antonio, Texas, and the daughter of a garment factory seamstress, I was taught to have pride in hard work and a job well done. I was surrounded by a community that provided a wealth of examples of working in teams, not wasting time on the clock and minimizing errors. All of them are great skills to have in a service-based industry. But none of that prepared me to negotiate the various pitfalls inherent in the professional world.

The fact that I have successfully navigated a career in higher education despite the lack of inherited social and cultural capital is due in part to the mentorship from other strong women and men of color that forged a path for me to follow. I was lucky. It was a combination of being in the right place at the right time and having family members and friends who generously offered support and guidance over the years.

We need to do more to better at preparing our first-generation students for the workplace. Tight budgets and limited resources strain many of our public universities. Still, one way to do that would be to develop an alumni-mentor program and match graduates with a mentor in their field. Another option is to support efforts like those of the Latino Alumni Network and create networking opportunities where graduates can connect and learn from each other.

As the nation begins to recover from the pandemic and the workplace accommodates the new changes, so should universities look toward better preparing our first-generation students to enter the professional workplace.

Erlinda Yañez is the department coordinator for Chicana and Chicano Studies in the Social Sciences Department at San José State University and a fellow of The OpEd Project.

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