Every year, 1.2 million students who are first-generation or from low-income backgrounds will graduate from college. This achievement helps end the cycle of poverty and establish a better financial future for graduates and their families — yet only 25% of these students secure a strong first job or attend graduate school after completing an undergraduate degree.
When it comes to career readiness, first-generation students and those from low-income backgrounds are at a significant disadvantage. These students are less likely to have professional connections that can offer introductions and guidance on the recruiting process, even interview tips or a second set of eyes on a resume draft. Some students may also lack the financial support necessary to cover basic expenses while they dedicate time to internships and job-hunting.
As college success advisors, we strive to help students persist through college and earn a degree so they can launch fulfilling careers. But how can we counterbalance the discrepancy in career readiness between students from high-income backgrounds and those who are first-generation students or from low-income backgrounds?
Career readiness programming can shift the course of students’ futures and help them unlock the opportunity already available to many of their peers. Here are a few approaches we have introduced to prepare our scholars for professional success.
Partner to Nurture Professional Skills & Experience
First-generation students and those from low-income backgrounds often face more obligations and responsibilities than their peers, such as simultaneously juggling school, work, and family responsibilities. And this can be a barrier to career readiness.
For example, internships provide critical real-world experience that helps students prepare for professional roles and grow their networks — both of which offer a competitive edge in the job market. Unfortunately, traditional internships typically require 20 to 40-hour workweeks and may not provide any compensation, which means working students are often unable to accept those opportunities. As a result, they graduate college with less experience and fewer contacts in their field.
To help students grow their professional skills and experience, we partner with Braven, a career readiness organization focused on the success of students like ours. Eligible Dell Scholars are invited to participate in Braven Online, a 15-week virtual program designed to equip participants to launch a strong career after graduation.
Braven Online Fellows meet once a week for two hours, with participants completing up to three hours of prework on their own time. Because meetings are held in the evenings, they’re less likely to interfere with other responsibilities — and those who complete the program are eligible to receive a $500 stipend to help cover expenses.
We also work with Parker Dewey to connect Dell Scholars and recent graduates with micro-internship opportunities. These short-term, paid professional opportunities allow students to gain new skills and foster relationships while supporting companies in building a talent pipeline. Plus, with the flexibility of micro-internships, students can apply for as many as they’d like without interfering with their ability to hold down a job or meet family obligations.
Engage Companies in Your Network
This may be an obvious one, but quality employment starts with quality employers! Companies in your region or network can provide value through internship programs, mock interviews, live events like career-focused Q&A panels, and mentorships. Current employees can offer students a wealth of information, including insight into their professional backgrounds, personal career paths, and how to get a foot in the door.
Take time to consider your existing relationships and which companies or organizations may be willing to help your students. It’s also a good idea to develop an approach that highlights the value those organizations will receive in return. For example, businesses can establish a talent pool for entry-level positions by cultivating relationships with soon-to-be graduates. At Dell Scholars, we partner with companies that are looking to engage students like ours, including those in the financial, technology, and nonprofit or public sectors.
Leverage Your Alumni Community
Your program’s alumni can be a tremendous asset to your career readiness programming, offering their own perspectives from the professional world and serving as trusted confidants — especially if alumni came from similar backgrounds.
Successful graduates who were first-generation students or came from low-income backgrounds make great mentors for current students and can impart plenty of wisdom. For example, they know the challenge of juggling school alongside work and family responsibilities and the difficulty of evaluating a job offer when you’re the first person from your family to be in a professional field. Students are more likely to trust those with whom they share similar life experiences — and seeing someone who has overcome the same hurdles they face can be inspiring and encouraging.
Also, surveying graduates can help you clarify the specific difficulties students may face after graduating, so you can ensure you’re addressing those challenges in your college readiness programming.
Every cohort of students has their own unique set of challenges to overcome on their path to college success, and those hurdles don’t disappear after graduation. Through career readiness programming, you can empower students with the skills, experience, and networks to unlock professional opportunity.