Career Development of First-Generation College Students: Pioneers in Our High Schools

by Lynn Wiljanen

First-Generation College Students
Every opportunity I have had to counsel or speak to high school students has involved the following introduction: “Hi my name is Dr. Wiljanen, and I am a first-generation college student. Do you know what that is?” Many do not know. I tell them that first-generation students are pioneers, as they are the first in their families to go to college. I believe passionately that the career development needs of high school students whose parents did not finish high school require a special commitment from career counselors. Students who are the first in their families to attend a community college or 4-year university are referred to as “first-generation college students”.

First-generation students tend to be from lower income and ethnic-minority backgrounds (Horn & Nunez, 2000). The experience of high school students who will be first-generation students is much different from their peers. First-generation students are likely to lag behind their peers in academic achievement as early as the 8th grade, tend to take less rigorous math courses, have lower expectations of what they are capable of doing, report that they receive little to no support from their parents in planning for further education (Choy, 2001). The role of career counselors who work with first-generation students is one that requires sensitivity, respect, and an awareness of their unique career path. This article will focus on a career development model of first-generation college students that examines their challenges and opportunities for career growth.

Challenges of Being a Pioneer
First-generation college students are pioneers in their family, schools, culture, and community. They are bridging a “culture gap” between the world of their family and the new frontier of higher education (London, 1992). They are “straddling two cultures” and must try to figure out what it means to be successful (Hsiao, 1992). The challenges that first-generation students face are:

    •Tension in commitments to family versus demands of higher education
    •Conflicting messages between the family and school in regard to jobs and career choices
    •Lower career self-efficacy: Belief in their ability to make a career choice
    •Lack of academic preparation and study skills
    •Lack of role models and mentors to help them navigate the career process
    •Obstacles in choosing high school classes, setting career goals, managing college admission processes, and how to finance an education

Opportunities for Career Growth
First-generation students are, indeed, pioneers in their career path. Being a pioneer means that they have a resilient spirit. In their career and life path, they want to have a better life, to be successful, and to use their talents and abilities. Many first-generation students have talents that can be nurtured by providing them with the empowerment in the career development process. The opportunities for career growth of first-generation students :

    •A willingness to “be first” and to take risks in pursuing a career
    •A genuine, intrinsic desire to have a better life through higher education
    •Wanting to bring pride to their family, school, and community with their academic and career achievements
    •A resilient spirit with the ability to persist in their goals and dreams
    •The desire and ability to overcome the odds of poverty, circumstance, lack of family support, and institutional barriers

The Role of the Career Counselor
First-generation students can be empowered by learning the career development process of self assessment and their fit with the world of work. Successful career development and advising of first-generation students must be proactive and long-term (Thayer, 2000). Career counselors can enhance their work with first-generation students in the following ways:

    •Help the student to self-identify as a first-generation student and assist them in understanding the unique challenges and strengths they have.
    •Link first-generation students to college access programs, such as Upward Bound or Gear Up!
    •Encourage students to speak to other first-generation students who have been successful. These mentors can be current teachers, former students, or parent volunteers.
    •Provide a career development group or program for all first-generation students at your school.
    •Embrace your professional career counseling role and the power of advocacy for first-generation students.

Students in K-12, who are first-generation college students, have unique challenges which can sometimes put them at-risk for academic difficulty and career indecision. They are the first in their families to pursue education beyond high school, and they may need career counselors to be more proactive with them early in their primary education. Career counselors must help them understand the challenges and unique strengths of being first-generation. Career counseling that is respectful and sensitive to their culture will empower first-generation students to succeed.

Dr. Lynn Wiljanen is a first-generation college student. She is an Assistant Professor of Social Science at Wor-Wic Community College, Salisbury, MD. She has worked as a career counselor and teacher with students in high school, community college, and the university setting for the past 17 years. She can be reached at
Dr. Lynn Wiljanen
Wor-Wic Community College, 32000 Campus Drive
Salisbury, MD 21804
Summer Phone (757) 854-2815
Email: lwiljanen@worwic.edu

Choy, S.P. (2001). Students whose parents did not go to college: Post-secondary access, persistence, and attainment. The Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education. NCES. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Horn, L. & Nunez, A.M. (2000). Data from U.S. Department of Education, NCES National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 8th graders, “Third Follow-Up” (NELS: 1988/1994). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Hsiao, K.P. (1992). First-Generation College Students. ERIC Digest: ED351079.

London, H.B. (1992). Transformations: Cultural challenges faced by first-generation students. In L.S. Zwerling & H.B. London (Eds.), First-generation students: Confronting the cultural issues (pp. 5-11). New Directions for Community Colleges, 80 (4).

Thayer, P. (2000). Retaining first-generation and low income students. The Opportunity Outlook Journal, May 2000 issue.

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