First-Generation College Student Career Barriers (and How to Overcome Them) was originally published on Forage.

First-Generation College Student Career Barriers (and How to Overcome Them)
Three students hold up their caps wearing graduation gowns

I was a first-generation college student, and while I’ve held numerous jobs over the past decade, the struggles that began in college still have a lasting effect on me today. Unfortunately, many of the issues we first-generation college students (or first-gens) face during college or university don’t stop after graduation. Being a first-gen in the workforce often involves long-term imposter syndrome, difficulties understanding corporate environments, and feeling like you’re constantly trying to catch up to your peers. 

On the bright side, many first-gens have come before me, and many more will follow. With each generation, the transition into and out of college and then to the workplace becomes more accessible as we rely on each other’s mistakes, failures, and guidance to progress. 

What Is a First-Generation College Student?

Some students may not realize they’re first-generation college students until they’re already in school or have graduated. Unfortunately, the definition of a first-gen student is complicated. 

On the surface, it’s self-explanatory as “a student who is the first in their family to attend college.” But that definition calls into question siblings, cousins, aunts, grandparents, and other extended members of a family who may not have had a strong role in a student’s life. It also doesn’t address parents who dropped out of college or completed an associates degree. 

Pell Grants eligibility defines first-generation students as those whose biological parents didn’t complete a four-year college degree program. However, other programs or institutions exclude students with a parent or guardian who has even enrolled in a college course at one point. 

For the sake of this article, we’ll use the definition accepted by the Center for First-Generation Student Success: You’re a first-generation college student if your parents didn’t finish a four-year degree. This definition is what I’ve used for myself, too, as neither of my parents completed a bachelor’s degree. As for the opposite type of students, we’ll call them continuing-generation students, traditional students, or peers. 

7 First-Gen Student Career Barriers and How to Overcome Them

Career barriers for first generation college students are often challenges that start during school that have lasting effects on a student’s prospects for success. These barriers include lack of access to resources, mental health and identity issues, and financial set-backs. 

1. Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is one of the most pervasive challenges I’ve experienced as a first-gen. When first-generation students begin college, it’s easy for them to feel like they don’t belong, as if they’ve somehow tricked everyone into letting them be there. With imposter syndrome comes shame, guilt, and embarrassment, which can carry over into the “real world” after graduation. 

Confidence is key in networking, interviewing, and excelling in a career, and imposter syndrome quickly dashes to bits any confidence we first-gens begin to feel. Think of imposter syndrome as an inner critic constantly telling you why you don’t deserve what you’ve worked for. My inner critic is especially loud on days when I’m busy, up against deadlines, or not feeling well. The worst part? The more we ignore these feelings of inadequacy, the more likely we will face severe burnout. 

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

The most essential step in overcoming imposter syndrome is learning to trust yourself: Your school didn’t make a mistake in allowing you to study there — you deserve to be there. Your employer wasn’t making a wrong choice when they hired you — they hired you for a reason and want you to be a part of the company. 

Some ways I’ve worked to combat imposter syndrome include: 

  • Therapy
  • Daily affirmations
  • Finding trusted coworkers or mentors to talk to 
  • Journaling 
  • Celebrating personal wins (no matter how small!) 



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2. Not Knowing About Resources 

It can be complicated amidst the hustle and bustle of college life to think about career plans and seek out the resources to help you get on the right path. According to research from MIT, only 16% of first-generation college students use on-campus career services in their first year. 

For first-generation college students, we typically don’t have a parent or trusted adult who can tell us where to begin looking for resources. Some first-gens simply don’t have the time or money to afford to spend time finding college career offices, networking events, and career readiness courses. Others are lost on where to find these resources and may feel embarrassed or scared to start.  

I worked off campus for most of my college career, and despite living on campus, I still missed most networking or career readiness events my school hosted. Some events I didn’t know about because I didn’t have much time to hang out in social areas on campus — being on campus meant doing coursework, studying, and sleeping. For other events, I didn’t have time for them because I was working or had to use that time to get schoolwork done. 

How to Overcome Not Knowing About Resources

One way to learn about available resources involves approaching people and asking for help. 

Tyler, a first-generation college student and software engineer, says “The ‘it’s who you know’ element cannot be overstated.” He found that building a support system of professors, employers, and people on campus helped make the transition from college to career easier. 

Having a go-to person on campus who knew about these events and resources would have helped me plan more strategically. This sense of connectedness is part of cultural and social capital — something continuing-generation students enter college with that first-generation students have to build largely on their own. 

Evan O’Connell, a first-generation business management, real estate, and entrepreneurship student at the University of Alabama, says if he could give advice to himself in freshman year, he’d tell himself not to be “afraid to reach out to people that may be willing to help or give me advice on how I can improve my odds of getting internships.” 

With busy schedules, imposter syndrome, and the stress of balancing school and life responsibilities, seeking out opportunities and resources can be challenging. Some other things that can help include:

  • Subscribing to newsletters so you automatically receive alerts about events
  • Scheduling a meeting with your career center to learn about available resources
  • Talking to your friends on campus about the resources they use 
  • Approaching your professors during office hours or after class to begin forming a network of resources

It’s not too late if you’ve already graduated, either. Resources like LinkedIn are great for reaching out to past professors or employers, many of whom would be happy to advise you on building a better network, gaining more marketable skills, and finding mentorship opportunities. 

3. Steep Learning Curve That Affects Future Opportunities 

It’s no secret that first-generation college students experience a steep learning curve upon entering college. The more unfortunate part of this learning curve is the impact it can have on future opportunities. 

We first-gens don’t have someone close who came before us, who can warn us about the mistakes, tell us how they managed it all, and give us a heads up about what to expect. 

“Navigating my way through higher education on my own with nobody else in my family having been through it before, I feel like, makes things a lot more stressful,” Evan says.

College itself is already stressful for most students, so adding in the pressure of being a first-generation college student and the wild unknowns we must navigate on our own, it’s no wonder we often have a rough start to our college career. 

And that stress and anxiety can lead to mistakes that impact us for years to come. Poor grades in the first and second years due to being overwhelmed with the learning curve can lead to fewer internship opportunities and job offers. The stress can also lead to health issues and missed social and networking opportunities. It may even lead to some first-generation college students dropping out or needing extra time to finish their degree.  

According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, first-generation college students are less likely than their peers to hold formal leadership positions, study abroad, participate in faculty-led research, or even have paid internships. Some of these statistics may be caused by a lack of time, money, and resources, but they can also be partially attributed to the overwhelming anxiety and stress that comes from navigating college alone. 

How to Overcome the Steep Learning Curve Effects

Overcoming the learning curve of entering college and the workforce is no mean feat. What works for one person may not work for another, and not every student has access to the same resources on and off campus. However, some ways to start breaking down the barriers to get your footing are: 

  • Speaking with the career center on campus or contacting them if you’ve already graduated (they often have alumni resources available, too!)
  • Talking to other students about their experiences and how they’re navigating the process
  • Joining online or in-person communities to begin building a network of support 
  • Talking with your professors 
  • Seeking mentorship from faculty members
  • Participating in therapy
  • Finding scholarships to fund extracurricular activities 


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4. Lack of Time or Money for Extracurriculars 

Aside from the stress and anxiety of navigating college alone, many first-generation college students don’t have the time or money to get involved in extracurricular activities. 

For some, like me, having a job off campus or needing to be available for family took away a significant amount of time, making serious involvement in on campus clubs or sports much more difficult. Other students can’t afford the costs associated with sports, going to events for clubs, or foregoing a job to make time for extracurriculars. 

After all, parents of first-generation college students typically earn less than other students’ parents. The Center for First-Generation Student Success found that parents of first-gens had a median income of $41,000 in 2020, while those of continuing-generation students earned a median income of $103,000. 

Beyond the lack of time or money, the importance of extracurricular activities on future career opportunities is often not explained. I knew in high school that extracurriculars, clubs, leadership positions, and sports were great for getting into college. However, it wasn’t until after I graduated college that I learned how big of an impact these activities during college have on employment prospects. 

Many first-generation college students feel pressure to excel academically since it almost feels like we need to prove we deserve to be there. So, it may feel wrong for us to use any time for more “fun” things like clubs and sports. There’s also pressure from parents to focus on academics since they also don’t know the importance of these activities — we don’t have someone there who can advise us. 

How to Overcome a Lack of Extracurriculars  

Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution to not having the money or time to get involved in clubs or sports. While in college, some ways to add extracurricular activities to your resume include:

  • Finding volunteer opportunities that may be as infrequent as once or twice a month
  • Joining clubs that have virtual or online meetings
  • Seeking scholarship opportunities to fund activities 

If you’ve already graduated from college, adding these activities into your life becomes infinitely harder. And, the farther you get from college, the less relevant extracurricular activities become to potential employers. However, hiring managers often highly value leadership experience and skill-building activities regardless of your graduation date. Some options for incorporating these types of things into your resume are:

  • Volunteering 
  • Enrolling in online courses
  • Seeking out and joining professional and civic organizations 
  • Finding opportunities to explore leadership roles within your current role 
  • Using virtual job simulations to build relevant skills



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5. Salary Negotiations Feel Wrong

Post-graduation, a significant issue facing first-generation college students is navigating job offers and salary negotiations. Think of it this way: if your mom made $40,000 a year at age 40, it feels weird to turn down a salary offer of $50,000 when you’re 21 since that’s already more money than you’ve ever experienced. 

First-generation college students often carry immense shame, guilt, and embarrassment — we don’t feel we deserve to be where we are. So, turning down a job offer or trying to negotiate salaries may seem ungrateful. 

When I got my first salaried “adult” job, I never questioned the salary offer because it was more money than I was used to making, even though $45,000 in Washington, D.C. is not a very livable salary. Even with each subsequent job after that, negotiating felt wrong because the salary was more than my previous role. 

Beyond that, there’s a constant fear of financial security. Tyler notes that finding employment exclusively for financial stability and being unable to take risks led to increased anxiety. 

And this inability to negotiate salaries and take financial risks may have far reaching effects, too. A study by Pew Research found that households headed by first-generation college students have a median household income of $99,600 compared to the median household income of $135,800 for second- or continuing-generation-led homes. 

How to Overcome Job and Salary Negotiation Fears

Job offer and salary negotiation stress often stems from imposter syndrome — if you don’t feel worthy of a job or higher salary, you’re unlikely to ask for it. The first way to begin breaking down these fears and anxieties is by addressing your feelings of imposter syndrome through therapy, journaling, and talking with friends, family, and mentors. 

Negotiating salary is an art, though. Some of the ways you can prepare yourself for negotiating with hiring managers are:

  • Researching salaries for similar roles in your area 
  • Talking to industry professionals to get an idea of the expected salary range for that position
  • Remembering to factor in your credentials, like your degree or certifications
  • Practicing negotiating with a friend or family member so you feel comfortable 

>>MORE: How to Negotiate Salaries for Beginners

6. Job Applications Are Foreign 

I’ll be honest: I had no idea how to apply for “real jobs” after I graduated from college. Although I had already worked several jobs during high school and college, the application process for serious, salaried roles significantly differs from retail or service industry work. 

I didn’t know how to really build a resume, either. How was I supposed to include my degree on my resume? How could I include my previous work experience in a way that made it seem more impressive than retail or service industry jobs? 

For first-generation college students, we don’t have a parent we can turn to to ask these questions. For some, their parents worked those same retail or service industry jobs. Others have parents who’ve worked the same job for decades and don’t know how the current application process works. How can our parents offer us advice if the last time they got a job, they got it by walking around and handing out paper resumes to offices in their town? 

With the pressure to find a good paying job to repay loans, the fear of financial insecurity, and the lack of knowledge on how to apply for jobs strategically, first-generation college students find themselves in another steep learning curve fraught with anxiety, stress, and embarrassment. Stumbling through those first few years after college may even lead to limited job opportunities down the line, leading to lower household incomes. 

How to Overcome the Job Application Struggle 

I’d be lying if I said job applications are now a breeze for me. Updating my resume and writing cover letters still fills me with a sense of dread and anxiety, and I shiver thinking of how sweaty my palms get before interviews. 

However, there are some great resources to begin lessening the stress: 

Remember that job applications are stressful for most other people, too. Talking with friends, coworkers, mentors, and industry professionals may help you feel less alone in the process, and they can be excellent sources for industry-specific tips and tricks.  



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7. Delays in Discovering Career Aspirations

When traditional or continuing generation students enter college, they typically have an idea of what to expect and a knowledgeable support system to fall back on. This sense of security allows them to use college as a time to explore or define career aspirations. 

On the other side of the spectrum, first-generation college students may be too overwhelmed with the learning curve or too focused on academic success (to prove they belong there) to honestly think about what they want to do in life. 

According to the National Student Employment Association (NSEA), first-generation college students typically choose to study more practical or vocational subjects, such as business or engineering. The goal of financial stability, of finding a good paying job after graduation, often supersedes the desire to find the career path they want. This lack of consideration early on may lead to first-generation college students trying to figure themselves out and learn their likes and interests at a much later age than their peers. 

I myself chose to study a more practical subject in college and pushed aside the things I knew I enjoyed for the sake of trying to find a job that would offer me stability and security. For some people, that may be exactly what they want — they may end up loving the career they pursue. However, I found myself lost a few years after graduation, unhappy with my decisions and struggling to find a way to get into the career I wanted. 

How to Overcome Delays in Career Aspirations

Whether you’re still in school or graduated years ago, it’s not too late to reassess your career goals and change course. Taking the time to really think through your career aspirations and the path to get there can be challenging — it’s terrifying to realize that you’ve spent years working toward something you don’t even want. 

Some resources and methods I used for figuring out my own likes and interests include: 

  • Journaling and therapy
  • Talking with people in different roles and careers
  • Taking career quizzes 
  • Exploring ikigai (a Japanese concept that defines a person’s purpose in life) 
  • Enrolling in online courses 

If you know what you want to do, transitioning into a new career can be a complex process, often fraught with financial insecurity and unknowns. By talking with people in that desired profession and focusing on the hard skills you need to succeed, you can begin to make a game plan for a seamless transition. It may not happen overnight, though, so patience is essential. 

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Tips for First-Generation College Students Entering the Workforce

Regardless of your specific situation, general advice that can help first-generation college students navigate career barriers includes being open to new ideas and opportunities, learning to trust yourself, and acknowledging the superpowers that come from being a first-gen. 

Be Open to New Opportunities

Although fears of financial insecurity or instability are valid, staying open to the possibilities college and your career path may bring is vital. 

When asked what advice he’d give to himself in freshman year, Tyler recommends “being open to the opportunities that will naturally come your way, saying yes to things, being consistently receptive to growing and challenging your own beliefs.”

Trust In Yourself

Learning to trust in yourself may be a multi-year process, but it’s vital for fighting back against imposter syndrome. Therapy, online courses, and building your social and cultural capital can all help you begin to recognize that you are capable and deserving of the opportunities you receive. 

Sometimes, you may need to tell yourself you’re “faking it ’til you make it,” if that helps. But do you want to know a secret about practically every other student, adult, and professional? “They’re making things up as much as you are, so why get in your own way?” says Tyler. 

Acknowledge Your First-Gen Superpowers

First-generation college students develop incredible skills just to survive — superpowers. We learn early on how to overcome adversity and challenges. We know how to be resourceful, using limited resources to make big things happen. 

“I developed personalized systems and strategies that helped me get to the point I’m at today,” Evan explains. “I’ve discovered many things on my own and have had the opportunity to be in many good situations that have allowed me to leverage my own unique perspective and provide others with insights and perspectives that they may have never had before.”

Remembering these superpowers and finding ways to use them in our careers and personal lives can help us succeed and begin to pave the way for the next generation of first-generation college students.

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