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Working with First Generation Students: Don’t Forget the Tie Tying Lessons

October 12, 2017 4:49 pm Published by 1 Comment


David came into the office very early one morning, before we were even open. He was dressed in a suit and with a new tie in his hand. He had an interview set up for that morning but he didn’t know how to tie a tie and had no one in his life who could show him. One of the men in our office gave him a private lesson on tying his tie. David got the internship he was interviewing for that morning and three more over the next two years. I had lunch a few weeks ago with David to interview him for this blog, and the first thing he mentioned was how important that tie tying lesson was for him.

David is about six months out from graduation and is working full-time for a contracting company that designs utilities systems. David majored in land use planning, a degree program he created through our Center for Individualized Learning. He works regularly with both private citizens and governmental agencies to map the best terrain options for running utilities on their land. He is bright, reliable, excellent at working with clients who don’t understand the technical aspects of the issues at hand, and a first generation student, meaning he is the first in his family to go to college. This last piece is important because David faced hurdles many students do not face during college and in making the transition to the workforce. He also represents a growing population in higher education.

The economy has changed significantly in the past 50 years. High school used to be the expected level of education and all that was necessary to find a good career path. That is becoming less and less true, as the economy shifts increasingly towards high tech and intelligence based careers, such as the Geospatial mapping that David does. A college degree is now the required minimum for many if not most careers, with a growing number giving preference to those with graduate degrees. People who would not have attended college a few generations ago are signing up in growing numbers, and they come with strikingly different needs than their classmates from educated backgrounds.

First generation students come from varied backgrounds and experiences and often face significant challenges. Many are the children of immigrants and may come from families that don’t speak English fluently at home or have dramatically different cultural expectations. These students may battle a lack of support for higher education among their family members and peers, a reticence to take on debt even to pursue education, or expectations that they begin supporting the family as soon as they are old enough to work. Others are returning veterans who find it hard to transition into jobs in the civilian economy and may be pursuing an education while supporting a spouse, kids, and a mortgage or while still engaged in military activities that must be balanced with classes.

Still others may be children of blue collar workers who see that the careers that sustained their parents are disappearing or are in industries that are being automated or outsourced. For any of these students, there is often no help at home for navigating the complex bureaucracy of the university system or for making the leap from college to the workforce. Regardless of their backgrounds, these students may need resources that we fail to offer or are unaware of or slow to access the resources we do have.

In an effort to begin a conversation about how better to serve these students, I asked David and two other First Generation students who work in our office what they would like to see us do to aid them and what advice he would offer incoming first generation students. Here are their suggestions:

Students’ Suggestions for Educators:

  • Don’t assume we know what you mean – Higher education has its own lingo, and people who have not grown up in a family familiar with that lingo will struggle to navigate the school at first. Be respectful of that and don’t talk down to students who don’t understand initial instructions.
  • Offer more direct training on office culture and professional behavior – how and when to ask questions at work, professional dress expectations, etiquette for social events that cross boundaries into work. It would have been nice to have someone tell me when I could order a drink at work function and what type of food is a bad idea for a lunch meeting. Note to self, skip the hot wings.
  • Meet students where they are – be present in public campus spaces, speak in classes, and connect with students in any way other than sitting in the office and waiting for them to show up. Also respect the fact that these students will often violate your expectations at first because they don’t know better, so have walk-in hours, see them even if they come late, and use it as a teaching moment to tell them about university and employer expectations.
  • Be a real mentor – First generation students will go to a trusted person for help solving problems that may or may not be within the job duties of that person, so be prepared to help them navigate these other areas.
  • Seriously, offer classes on tying a tie – This was so impactful for me! I can’t tell you how terrified I was to wear a tie.

Students’ Suggestions for Other First Generation Students:

  • Find resources on campus – They exist, even if you haven’t heard about them yet, so go looking. If you don’t know what to ask for, just explain what you are struggling with to someone willing to give you the time. They will help you find the right things to ask the right people to help you.
  • Find advisors in your major and mentors among your classmates – Having a faculty member or advisor you trust will help you choose the right classes and balance school and all the other stuff you are doing. Upper classmen are often excellent guides to everything from where to find a good pizza to how best to please a certain faculty member to how to connect with the right people to help you succeed.
  • Be open to many things – The career path you think you want may not be the right one or another option you had not considered may present itself. I changed majors more than once and then ended up creating my own. It was not what I envisioned, but it worked out great.
  • The straight path is rarely straight – Don’t get discouraged when things don’t work out exactly as you planned and keep an open mind about the options ahead of you.
  • Get jobs on campus – These are a great way to get experience in a professional setting and gain confidence. They are also an awesome way to learn about and access other resources you don’t know about. I got lucky. I had a student job in the internship office, and they helped me in so many ways.

AUTHOR: Molly Weller Thompson is the Assistant Director of Work-Based Learning at Metropolitan State University of Denver. You can cantact Molly at

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1 Comment

  • As a first-gen college student, I agree with the varied challenges that such students face. It’s refreshing to see that there are professionals who care about these students. Thanks for the tips and keep caring Molly!

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