Diversity and Democracy

Curating Career Success for First-Generation College Alumni

Mitzi Gaitan-Najero, a sophomore communications major at the University of Southern California (USC), faced a critical dilemma in her career trajectory in 2013. Though interested in a career in media, as a product of a tight-knit Latino immigrant family, Gaitan-Najero had been returning home to northern California every summer to work in her dad’s gardening business. As the first in her family to go to college, she had become critical in her parents’ struggle to become legal US residents, but these family commitments did not allow her time to pursue internships to explore her intended career, putting her farther behind her peers every semester.

Gaitan-Najero decided to take my two-unit course, Pathways to Career Success for First-Generation College Students, which helped her land an internship for the Spanish-language television station Univision. The course explained the concept of unpaid internships, which can be difficult to fathom for someone who had worked for pay since a young age. From there, Gaitan-Najero secured paid internships with a variety of Latino media and general media companies during the rest of her time at USC. Upon graduation, she accepted a job at Facebook working on a new Latino business operation, a stunning opportunity for a first-generation college graduate. Gaitan-Najero juggled her role helping her undocumented parents obtain legal status with her need to create opportunities for herself during college and her years as a recent graduate.

Career Challenges

I began offering this elective course because I was frustrated with my meetings with college seniors who were heading toward graduation without concrete career plans. I also found myself counseling alumni years after graduation, helping them navigate job possibilities or graduate school options they did not know about as undergraduates.

In working with low-income, first-generation college students, most from racial minority backgrounds, I had learned how they struggled with finding ways to turn their academic majors into meaningful careers. Unlike most students whose parents went to college, these first-generation students had very limited ideas about the range of professions that a college degree could open for them and even less knowledge about how to get there.

USC employs only nine career counselors for eighteen thousand undergraduates at our Office of Career Advising, a relic from the days when few students came to USC from low-income and first-generation backgrounds. Now with more than three thousand first-generation college students, many having arrived as transfer students from community colleges, USC has an alumni crisis that it barely recognizes. Most faculty and staff are not prepared to offer career advice that is not dependent on students having previous exposure to professional careers, typically provided through family connections. Even though first-generation college students graduate from USC at the same rate as other students, they are often woefully unprepared for the job market.

A Safe and Supportive Community

Each fall for the past five years, my course has regularly enrolled between forty and fifty students from all majors, including students in their second and third years of college as well as new transfer students.

The course begins by creating a safe community for students to discuss their first-generation status. We watch video recordings of first-generation students discussing the challenges they faced when they arrived on campus. This often provides the first opportunity at USC for the enrolled students to talk about social class inequities. They discuss the wealth and privilege they see around them, their academic and personal adjustments to college, and the challenges they face because of expectations from their families and communities.

We read parts of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s 2013 autobiography, focusing on how she transitioned from the South Bronx to Princeton University, which makes them feel part of a larger movement of students and helps them find role models. We next read a series of articles that spark discussion on the issue of family obligations, concentrating on how to process students’ own feelings of guilt resulting from being away, as well as the obligations placed on them to guide their families out of poverty (Espinoza 2010; Aguis Vallejo and Lee 2012; Kwon 2014). This is usually when some students come to my office hours to admit that they send some of their financial aid home each month and others reveal that they spend hours each week translating for their immigrant parents rather than doing homework or obtaining an on-campus job.

Next we discuss how students’ college degrees can lead to professional salaries and how students can set realistic financial goals for themselves and their families. Rather than focusing on trying to buy a home for their parents, for example, students may need to make sure their parents have health insurance in their older years.

The course introduces students to resources they can access at USC to become successful as students and as budding professionals. For example, I require that they visit the office hours of one of their current instructors. We role-play this encounter in my class so they can overcome their fears. Most report positive outcomes, and some visits even lead to jobs, research opportunities, or internships.

Many students admit that they are unhappy with their choice of major, often because they feel pressure from home, or have pressured themselves, to select a major they perceive will lead to a high-paying career. I discuss with them the importance of high-impact practices no matter what their major (Kuh 2008), and the skills that employers seek from recent graduates (Hart Research Associates 2013). I talk with them about the value of the liberal arts and critical thinking skills, along with the desire of employers for employees who can write clearly and speak publicly. I help them as they pick courses for the next semester, emphasizing skill building across the curriculum and developing meaningful relationships with faculty members who can become mentors and write letters of recommendation.

Connecting with Alumni

All students in the course develop their own plans to explore careers, including through courses, internships, study abroad possibilities, civic engagement, and special campus programs—all of which they learn about in the course itself. Many students from low-income, racial minority backgrounds are involved in civic engagement work in local communities. I ask them to think through how their extracurricular or community-based work can translate into long-term job opportunities, often indicating more about their potential career trajectories than their academic studies. Job site visits are also a key part of the course. They allow students to see a wide range of places of employment and ask first-generation alumni about their career paths.

Students can also apply for funds I have secured from various companies to support them financially during internship opportunities. They learn about the power of internship experiences from former students (including Gaitan-Najero) who took the course and are now either graduating seniors with job prospects or recent graduates who can talk about their experiences in graduate school or the work sector. I have learned that first-generation college students tend to learn best when they hear lessons reinforced by alumni who were once in their position as students.

Changing the culture of an elite research university is a long and difficult process but one that is critical if we are to bridge the gap between community and college life for a more equitable future for all alumni.


Aguis Vallejo, Jody, and Jennifer Lee. 2012. “Family Obligations: The Immigrant Narrative and Middle-Class Individualism.” In Barrios to Burbs: The Making of the Mexican American Middle Class, 70–103. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Espinoza, Roberta. 2010. “The Good Daughter Dilemma: Latinas Managing Family and School Demands.” Journal of Hispanic Higher Education 9 (4): 317–33.

Hart Research Associates. 2013. It Takes More than A Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Kwon, Hyeyoung. 2014. “The Hidden Injury of Class in Korean-American Language Brokers’ Lives.” Childhood 21 (1): 56–71.

Sotomayor, Sonia. 2013. My Beloved World. New York: Vintage Books.

George J. Sanchez is Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and History at the University of Southern California.

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