Yamu Cham was a budding businesswoman. But after high school, the Gambian immigrant had to help her single mother pay the bills. So while other new graduates enrolled in university courses, Cham took full-time jobs.
Over the next seven years, she worked at a movie theater, as a nanny and at a college bookstore, watching her first set of customers mature from freshmen into seniors.
She was surrounded by textbooks, yet “going to college wasn’t an option,” she says.
At least, not in the traditional way. Seven years after high school, Cham enrolled in a single class at a Maryland community college, laying the foundation for the career she dreamed about. When she won scholarship money, she ramped up to two classes a semester, then three. Cham eventually earned her associate degree in business and transferred to the University of Maryland.
There, she thrived. But the challenges Cham faced didn’t disappear when she crossed the commencement stage. Like many others who were first in their families to graduate from college, she lacked industry connections, close career role models and familiarity with networking.
That made her doubt she belonged in the professional settings where her ambitions led her. At her first big internship, Cham says, “I was really nervous at the beginning.”
Fortunately, Cham had the support of Future Link, a Maryland nonprofit that helps first-generation university students navigate college and career planning. Its leaders paired her with a mentor and taught her how to network. They cheered from the sidelines as she turned that intimidating internship into a job, earned an MBA and built a business career in risk management.
The tools that helped Cham — a mentor, a support system and a tenacious attitude — are essential to convert first-generation college students into first-generation professionals.
[Read: Best Business Jobs.]
Role Models Required
Kids raised in homes without framed college diplomas and stories about fond campus memories can have trouble envisioning themselves pursuing higher education. Knowing this, administrators at Centre College in Kentucky have made it a priority to welcome first-generation students. Each year, Centre admits 10 to its Grissom Scholars program, which comes with a four-year, full-tuition scholarship.
The first-generation population is visible on campus, making up 19 percent of the school’s 1,450 undergraduates. And they’re academically successful: 85 percent earn degrees in four years, a higher figure than that of their peers whose parents did complete college. Yet even when they see themselves as part of a campus community, those who grew up without family members working in white-collar jobs may have difficulty picturing their own future professional careers.
“We have a number of parents who drive trucks, a number in the service industry, house cleaning, nail technicians — mostly lower-paying industries,” says Sarah Scott, Grissom Scholars program director. “Some parents work in fast food. There are quite a few parents who have the unfortunate third shift in factories.”
This leaves many aspirating first-generation professionals without ready-made career role models.
“I didn’t grow up around any attorneys and didn’t have any exposure to what it looks like to practice law beyond what you see on ‘Law & Order’ or ‘JAG,'” says Tyler Lattimore, an alumnus of Emory University who is now studying law at the University of Texas.
To compensate, first-generation students and graduates can benefit from talking to adults who work in salaried fields about how to identify and attain their own goals.
Lattimore did that by observing lawyers in action at the Department of Justice, where he worked as a paralegal after his first post-college job on a political campaign. Tyler Reed, a senior at the University of Maryland, was inspired to study neurobiology and physiology after meeting the surgeon who operated on the shoulder he injured playing high school sports.
“We talked one on one, and he spurted all this scientific jargon. I thought, ‘he’s phenomenally intelligent,'” Reed says. The surgery “stymied my athletic goals but spurred my academic goals.”
[Read: How to Land an Entry-Level Job.]
Finding Support Systems
Pursuing professions very different from those of their parents and guardians can leave first-generation students and graduates feeling isolated. Their families may be able to provide little more than general enthusiasm when it comes to career planning, Scott says, “because they don’t know how to help or what to do.”
“Not having my family be able to relate to that is always a challenge,” Lattimore says. “In those moments, you kind of feel alone.”
Due to pride and cultural norms, it may take time and practice for first-generation students and graduates to get comfortable seeking support outside of their families, says Mindi Jacobson, executive director of Future Link.
That rings true to Cham, who now works as a risk management consultant at National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
“Very often, we don’t ask for help as much as we should,” she says, adding, “Don’t get deterred if someone says no.”
College career centers and organizations like Future Link, America Needs You, Year Up and Strive for College can provide support. So can peer groups, which also offer camaraderie. Lattimore served as president of the Emory University Quest Scholars chapter, a club designed to help low-income students acclimate to college, socialize — and occasionally commiserate.
“Sometimes just validating your feelings is enough, even if it’s not finding solutions,” Lattimore says.
Mentors can provide invaluable advice and serve as useful sounding boards. The mentor Cham met through Future Link “played a big part” in her success, she says: “He’s been my math tutor, helped me with college applications and driven me to some of the schools I applied to when I was transferring” from community college to a four-year university.
To help identify empathetic mentors, first-generation students at Centre College have designed a logo to post near the office doors of faculty and staff members who also were the first in their families to graduate from college, Scott says.
Balancing Career Goals With Financial Needs
Low-wage or unpaid internships springboard many college students and recent graduates into their first jobs. That’s especially true in “knowledge- and technology-based” industries, where internships are “almost expected for young people,” Jacobson says.
But those opportunities are unsustainable for many first-generation students, who struggle to pay their education and other bills.
“I’ve never taken an unpaid internship or research because I couldn’t afford it,” Reed says.
Reed, who pays for his own tuition, has been financially independent since he was 16, with one exception: rent. He lives with his father and stepmother, and Reed says they wish he contributed more to household expenses.
“Recently they had some money issues and asked me to pay for utilities,” he says. “That’s been a strain.”
This kind of financial necessity, paired with family expectations, can strongly influence the paths students and new graduates pursue.
“There’s pressure to be in certain majors,” Scott says, because of assumptions that “if you’re a doctor or lawyer, you’re going to make more and be more successful.”
Those professions do pay well. But the high cost of graduate degrees in those fields sometimes proves prohibitive. Reed recently set aside his plans to apply to medical or physical therapy school in favor of a job in a laboratory or even the finance industry, in part because he’s eager to start earning a substantial salary.
“Paying for school has been a big burden for me,” he says. “I’m looking forward to utilizing my degree.”
Capitalizing on Work Experience
There’s one area where first-generation students and graduates often outshine their peers: work experience. By the time these young people have diplomas in hand, many have already been employed for years, earning money to support their educations and families. Their real-world skills — plus their persistence in overcoming obstacles — may make them attractive to employers.
Lydia Melwani Menendez, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, started working at McDonald’s at age 16 to save money for college. At 19, she took a job in the accounting department at a car dealership, working from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. before heading to evening community college classes.
“It helped me learn a lot about responsibility,” Melwani Menendez says. “It became the foundation of the person I am today.”
After reflecting on what she liked and disliked about her previous jobs, Melwani Menendez realized “I don’t want to be in front of a computer all day,” she says. So she started exploring opportunities in the hospitality industry.
“I had a great background at McDonald’s, being there for three years in front of customers,” she says.
Melwani Menendez convincingly sold that experience to the hiring manager during a job interview at a hotel. Now she works as a hotel sales coordinator in addition to pursuing her bachelor’s degree in hospitality management. Her bosses support her desire to finish her degree, she says: “They want to see me succeed.”
Needing to Network
Work experience and college degrees alone are rarely enough to help first-generation students and graduates find the right professional opportunities. Like most job seekers, they also have to network. They may be at a disadvantage if their parents, guardians and friends don’t socialize or work with people who have the connections they need.
“Family friends of blue-collar families are going to be different from the family friends of white-collar families,” Reed says. “Coming from a background without higher education or people connected with higher education, there’s not many connections my family could help with.”
When Melwani Menendez set out to find a hospitality job, her parents couldn’t help her find relevant people to talk to, and she struggled to even land a job interview. So she contacted Future Link, whose leaders helped her secure an informational interview with someone who had hospitality experience. That led to the job interview at the hotel where she now works.
That’s not to say family ties never yield results. Aspiring first-generation professionals should look out for good opportunities from all quarters.
Several years ago, Lattimore’s mother met a man at her church she suspected could help her ambitious son. She introduced the two. The man turned out to be a CEO in search of a young person to help run a political campaign. With Lattimore’s political science and economics degree, he fit the bill. He took the job, which jump-started his career.
“The experiences I had at the Department of Justice were because of the experiences I had at the campaign,” Lattimore says. “That wouldn’t have happened without my mother.”
More from U.S. News
A Career Road Map for First-Generation Professionals originally appeared on usnews.com