Education is the path toward upward social mobility. Yet, it is education plus social class that may determine the type of job a person is able to get after graduating from college. Obtaining a college degree is simply not enough to ensure that first-generation college students are able to find professional success and achieve upward social mobility. First-generation college students face additional barriers to career success, including limited social capital.
Pierre Bourdieu, whose work focused on social stratification and social reproduction, was one of the first sociologists to write about social capital. He explained social capital as social, resourceful relationships based on mutual group recognition. In other words, social capital is a social network of helpful connections that we are able to access depending on group membership. These connections can lead to valuable resources and helpful information, hence social capital.
I am a big advocate of mentorship. I have seen the difference my conversations have had with college students, especially first-generation college students whose parents are not able to coach them on applying to college, landing their first career-relevant job or navigating their professional careers. Being the first is not easy, that is why mentoring is so important to first-generation college students. Mentoring can be enhanced by understanding that first-generation college students have information gaps. Mentors can provide the missing information that parents of first-generation college students are not able to provide to their children. I have been astonished how students have told me how a short conversation with me made a difference in their education. Granted, I have been mentoring college students for a while, so I have learned what to say to them.
Here is a sample of things I tell college students.
Working more than 20 hours a week can be detrimental to one’s education because students need to find time to build that social capital (network) while they are in college.
Some students hesitate to get student loans, and I tell them about good debt and bad debt, explaining that student loans may fall into the good debt category depending on where they are going to college.
Building social capital while at college is essential because those relationships can help land a career-relevant internship.
Students must make it a point to speak to their college professors during office hours, even if it is just to introduce themselves. College professors can refer them to internships or jobs.
Getting career-relevant experience is a must, while at college. That restaurant or retail job helps pay the bills, but eventually, students need to figure out how to get career-relevant experience, even if it is as a volunteer or an unpaid internship.
Network with peers, get involved in clubs. Maximize the use of on-campus resources that tuition covers. Go to the career center. Find that mentor on campus who wants to help you succeed. They are there. Look for them.
I am also a big advocate of paid internships because I know that low-income students cannot afford to work for free. When students take an unpaid internship, they still need to work at a paid job because someone needs to pay the bills. Unpaid internships, even when they provide good experience, are a hardship to low-income students. In my job as the executive director at MANA de San Diego, I have made it a point to build relationships with top employers such as San Diego Gas & Electric who are willing to meet first-generation college students where they are at and are willing to mentor them. More employers seeking to improve diversity efforts will see positive results when they take the time to mentor first-generation college students.
Corporations looking to enhance their diversity pipeline should take the time to create paid internship programs that include a mentoring component. The talent is out there and smart employers who take the time to train first-generation college students will reap the rewards of a more diverse workforce, at a time when everyone is struggling to find talent. For an altruistic person such as myself, there is no greater reward than to know that I have helped make someone’s future better by just sharing what I know. When you help first-generation college students find a path toward upward social mobility, not only do they benefit, but their family benefits, and the entire economy benefits.
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