Being a first generation college student often feels like being perpetually caught between two or more worlds. Many of us learn that we must weave ourselves seamlessly through poverty, familial commitments, academic demands and more in order to be successful. But what happens when code-switching and your degree don’t seem to be enough?
A month ago, I graduated with my master’s degree. My last semester was spent looking for jobs, networking and meeting with people from my school’s career services center – all in an effort to prepare me for “the real world.” Unfortunately, time and time again I was told that many graduates should expect to wait several months to a year to find a job.
While many college students can move back home and receive familial and financial support while they look for jobs, I do not have that option. My family is poor and they live in a rural part of the state, far away from the kinds of jobs I am hoping to find. They cannot support me on top of their own expenses. And having spent the last six years investing all of my energy into “pulling myself up by my bootstraps” in order to get two degrees, I don’t want them to have to support me.
But that’s the problem. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is impossible unless someone is standing in front of you, ready to help along the way. What’s more, that person also needs to have connections. I have had multiple friends now graduate and find jobs right away. However, those friends typically already had a connection to the place that hired them – a family member or family friend who had influence over the hiring process in some way.
Others have had to wait longer and, regardless of having a graduate degree, are only able to find part-time work – usually in jobs they are not especially passionate about. When we are accepted into college, we are put under the impression that our degrees will set us apart, carry the same weight, and help launch us into a better life. However, many students are realizing that degrees aren’t enough – generational wealth and resources are still needed in order to get the jobs we want. And when you don’t have that option, it’s easy to feel like your degree really is just a piece of paper.
Let me be clear – I believe having a college education is a privilege. However, being the first person in your family to get a college education doesn’t leave you with many people to ask about how this process works, or many resources to support you in the transition between graduation and full-time work.
I was a top-performing student in my program. I won more scholarships and grants during my time in my program than any other student in recent years. I worked diligently as an undergrad and graduate student in my program’s student office, gaining real-world experience alongside my degree. I feel very lucky to have the encouragement of my peers and the faculty and staff at my university.
At the same time, I am no longer in school. I do not have a job, and rent is due in the next couple of weeks. I don’t have the added security blanket of being intimately connected to people who could make finding a job easier, and the pressure to succeed is overwhelming.
I have been applying for multiple jobs per day. And although I have had three interviews this month, I am still working towards being hired. One of the biggest struggles I faced while in school was constantly feeling like I had betrayed my family since I was no longer at home to help with bills or caretaking. Now that I have graduated, I find myself worrying that despite my education, poverty is continuing to limit the options available to me.
These observations lead me to wonder:
- What kinds of initiatives can be implemented at universities to help college students transition from classroom to workspace?
- What additional support could and should be offered to first gen and poor college students who don’t have the added benefit of familial or financial support networks?
- How could society as a whole work to support first-gen and poor college students throughout our educational careers?
One of the primary ways I have been receiving support in this time has been through crowdfunding. While I agree that networking is an integral aspect of the job search, I also think it is important to recognize that community support is an integral aspect of survival more generally. Although I worked and put myself through school on my own for the most part, I still lacked the necessary resources to survive at times. Thankfully, I am surrounded by people who agree that poverty is a form of violence and a lack of money should not dictate whether or not someone has a safe place to live, food on the table, or the medical care they need to live.
Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is impossible unless someone is standing in front of you, ready to help along the way. What’s more, that person also needs to have connections.”
I am not sure when I will find my first post-grad job though I hope it will be very, very soon. However, I know that big changes need to be made in order to support poor people in going to college and being successful post-graduation, including free access to education and increased resources in helping poor students find employment.
In the meantime, all I can hope is that the resourcefulness and resiliency instilled in me through a life of poverty helps me bridge the gap between where I am now and where I hope to be in the future.