Rise Up for First-Generation Students through Career Development

Junior Delgado

Director, Career Center

Westfield State University

As college enrollment declines at many institutions across the country, one population critical to recruitment will continue to be first-generation students. According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, from 2015 to 2016 first-generation students made up about 56% of undergraduates nationally. This group is identified as coming from households where a parent either did not attend college, or began the college process, but did not complete a college degree. Christine Albright points out that first-generation students tend to come from lower income families and ethnic minority backgrounds and often find barriers in their path to success (such as lack of social capital) that can put them at a disadvantage compared to their non-first-generation counterparts.

As college career center leaders, we must consider a few important process and systemic items in serving first-generation students:

  • Are there staff in place that have lived experiences to which first-generation students can identify/relate?

  • Are there collaborations with academic departments or offices that can provide referrals specifically for first-generation students?

  • Is your career center providing a welcoming environment for first-generation students?

  • Has your team had training on DEI to understand your students’ needs from a cultural perspective?

Here are a few actionable suggestions that can help you more specifically serve the career needs of first-generation students:


1. Gather with campus partners to discuss best approaches to serving first-generation students

Over the last few years, the Career Center at Westfield State University has been strategizing alongside campus partners to provide immediate services to first-generation students at the earliest stages of their college career. In an effort to create programs to serve first-generation students and retain them, three different university departments (Career Center, Urban Education Program and Psychology Department) met to discuss the potential for a pilot program in the summer of 2021.


Each summer, Westfield State enrolls students into the 6-week Summer Bridge Program. The majority of participants are first-generation, BIPOC students. The pilot we chose centered on a 6-week career development course for the Summer Bridge Scholars students. The university has never offered a career development course solely for first-generation students to help them understand the connection between career and college success. Before this course could become a reality, multiple conversations with program directors, an academic department chair and the provost took place around issues of funding, course credit and content, time and expectations for approval. The students had just completed high school in one of the most difficult eras due to hybrid learning, online classes and very little in-person interaction. In developing this program, the institution kept in mind key questions to ensure its success:


  • What academic departments and offices will be involved in planning discussions?

  • What key faculty members or career champions should be approached?

  • How to design a 4, 6- or 8-week course?

  • How to embed and deliver content (in person, online or hybrid)?

  • How to build supports in order to ensure success?


2. Be specific about the career content and process you provide to first-generation students

As we approached developing our course content, a critical first conversation centered on identifying what would be most beneficial for our students. Syllabuses and career development courses from institutions across the country were benchmarked to select and embed content that would be relevant to first-year, first-generation students. Our guiding principle is helping students understand and apply the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Competencies in their own career development by purposely embedding them into assignments each week. Assignments and lessons include career exploration using data points from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, personality assessments and how all this research ties into their career paths. Conversations on the value of networking at an early stage through Handshake and LinkedIn are incorporated. The course concludes with the creation of resumes and cover letters to targeted areas of interest and specific employment and experiential opportunities.


We also established the following course check points:

  • All program faculty and staff should meet each week to discuss student progress.

  • Individual program advisors should meet virtually, by email, and phone with students.

  • All program faculty and staff should use common technology to track attendance and progress.

  • Career staff should interact with students regularly during the duration of the course.

  • The ability to survey students and evaluate course content and effectiveness is a crucial component.


Though this is an early career development course, Westfield State will be able to track its first-generation students from year to year. As relationships continue to be established, students will be connected to a member of the career team from their summer course. This will allow students to have allies in the career center that will lead to all connection points from advising, mentoring, experiential education opportunities, career-related events and comfortability visiting the office.


3. Be intentional about getting first-generation students to maximize career center offerings.

As highlighted by The Career Leadership Collective, “We need a new set of solutions for a new era. When we simply offer career services as available, there is a high likelihood that first-generation students, underrepresented minority students, and low-income students will lose.” In fact, according to the National Alumni Career Mobility Survey (NACM), first-generation alumni are less likely to report having received career advice during their degree than non-first-generation alumni, with only 54% of first-generation alumni reporting they received career advice, compared to nearly 60% of non-first-generation alumni.


At Westfield State, we are working with our Urban Education Program because students are frequently reluctant to visit the career center and we believe that “meeting them where they are and going into their space” is crucial to initiate engagement and build lasting relationships.


A Strada-Gallup survey found that nearly 40% of students have never used their school’s career services resources. Of the students who had used the services, first-generation students were significantly more likely to rate the guidance they received as “very helpful.”


In Summary

  1. Is your career center ready to offer a career development course geared for first-generation students?

  2. Are the support systems in place that will allow cross-campus collaboration?

  3. Are the key partners, allies or career champions part of your network?

  4. If your institution is not able to offer a career development course, what are other programs that can be offered that impact your first-generation students?

Each campus has a unique population and what might work on one campus may not have the same effect on another. Finding the modality that best serves your students at your institution can come about from conversations with your first-generation students. As we learn how to best serve our first-generation students the end goal is “student success”.


Further Reading:


Junior Delgado serves as the Director of the Career Center at Westfield State University (MA). In 2021, he became the President Elect for the Eastern Association of Colleges and Employers (EACE). Over the last eight years, he has served as the Executive Chair/President to the Massachusetts Educational Recruiting Consortium (MERC). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Spanish and Education from Clark University, a Master of Education in Educational Administration from Westfield State University and completed the Institute for Management and Leadership (MLE) at Harvard University. Junior is currently in the Career Leaders Fellowship Program with The Career Leadership Collective.