NYC-Based Mentoring Program Gives First-Gen Students a Boost at 75 Colleges

Coughlin: Big Brothers Big Sisters has helped hundreds of undergraduates navigate campus life and find a path to career success.

Charlotte May

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A college campus is an intimidating place for young people who are the first in their family to experience higher education. Everything about campus life is unfamiliar, and as exciting as it is to be there, these students have few people to help them deal with the many ways in which college life works differently from what they’re used to, from understanding what resources are available when they struggle academically to knowing how to make use of everyday tools like a course syllabus or faculty office hours.

Not many make it all the way through to graduation. And for those who do, even with a degree, entering the workforce can be equally difficult.

If they come from a family that struggles to make it from one paycheck to the next, they’ll feel pressure to contribute right away, which may lead them to accept jobs below the education level they worked so hard to attain. First-generation graduates are 8% more likely to take a job that doesn’t require their bachelor’s degrees.

They need help, clearly. That’s why my organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, has been running a College and Career Success Program for about five years. Some 600 students have participated in that time, and around 350 undergraduates — all of whom are former Littles in our other programs — are in this project now. The majority attend the State University of New York or City University of New York, but participants are enrolled at about 75 schools across the country. Most are in bachelor’s degree programs, but we support students at community colleges as well.

The idea is simple: Littles have the opportunity to opt into our College and Career Success Program while they are in high school. We help them identify colleges as juniors and apply, with the support of a counselor. After graduation, they’re able to formally join the program, which guarantees them support through college and into their first career job. They then connect with a mentor, or Big, who checks in on the students throughout their undergraduate years and ensures they have the support, guidance and resources they need to graduate. It is the role of the Bigs to explain their own journey and the help they accessed along the way. This is important because many students feel they have to do it on their own and that asking for help is a sign of weakness or failure. But in reality, no one succeeds alone.

Students and mentors have a monthly check-in guide that brings structure to their conversations around college persistence and success. These check-ins have themes that shift each semester, covering everything from navigating campus life to laying the foundation for success after graduation. They include understanding and accessing college life and resources; getting engaged on campus in ways that align with interests and potential career aspirations; identifying a peer group that can support overall college and career goals; and identifying opportunities on campus that can introduce a potential career path and bolster a resume. 

During the first two years of college, these check-in guides are meant to help students stay on track to graduate in a major they are interested in. Right now, it’s working for 82% of our college students.

The conversation shifts starting in the third year toward career exploration and access. We leverage corporate partners to offer what we call Career Pathways programming, which pairs college students with a mentor in an industry they are interested in. Career Pathways are done in cohorts with 15 students and 15 employees from a company or professional organization. They meet weekly for 10 sessions, where students learn about the different careers that exist in a particular industry.

Students have the chance to identify a career and then map out with their mentor actions they can take in college to build their resumes. They will also participate in informational interviews with someone who has the job they want and have an opportunity to connect with the entire cohort of mentors to build their professional network. We also ask mentors to share their professional networks and opportunities with the students.

It’s still early, but results are promising. We had our first graduating class last year, and 80% of participants left the program with a career job or internship. If those results continue, scholars in our program will make it to the finish line and be positioned well for the life that starts beyond it.Most professionals know that embarking on a path to career success takes more than just a degree. It also needs the helping hands and guidance of a network that can open doors that students might otherwise not have access to. The norms of campus life and college resources are unknown to most first-generation students, as is the concept and importance of networking. We hope this program helps level the playing field for these young people.

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