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  • Writer's pictureKelle Martin

College to Career as a First-Gen Student


The first day I walked onto my college campus I thought, “Wow, everyone looks like they should be on tv.” Then I realized that actually, it was just that I was looking at a sea of Caucasians. Up to that point, TV had been the only place I had seen so many blonde, blue-eyed people. This certainly wasn’t the environment I knew and it was intimidating. I’m not alone. Only 11% of first-generation college students even complete their bachelor’s degree and feeling out of place is one of the top reasons cited by students.


My first stop was the bookstore where I was hit hard with sticker shock. Mom paid tuition and rent but the rest was on me – $400+ in books was not in the plan. I found a job serving frozen yogurt, which helped with the bills as well as greatly contributed to my meal planning. In the summer I was a receptionist by day and a hostess by night saving up for the following school year. Balancing school and work is a necessity but it’s also the primary reason most students drop out.


The priority was navigating my new environment, getting a paycheck, and keeping up with academics. Frankly, I gave little thought to my career. I had essays to write, froyo to serve, and some semblance of a social life to build. Now, thanks to a study by Strata, we know undergraduates who participate in work-based learning feel their college experience is more valuable and report more success.


In my case, I graduated with a degree in Political Science, no relevant work experience and a handful of high-interest credit cards carrying thousands of dollars of debt thanks to the convenient booths set up on campus that passed out plastic like it was candy. I moved to San Francisco to get a job at one of the big advertising companies to pursue my career in political advertising. It didn’t happen.


However, after some twists and turns, 8 years later I did enter advertising. And now with a career at my back, I am able to make a difference helping to provide paid internships to students like myself.


Overall my story is a triumphant one. I made it. I graduated, got a job, paid down those credit cards and now have a career where I have the opportunity to help. Fortunately, I’m not alone. There are a number of organizations with initiatives designed to bridge the gap that took me so long to swim. Here are some:


  1. The state of California is investing $108 million in programs designed to bridge higher education and the workforce. These include partnerships with the UC and Cal State colleges. However right now only $250k is targeted toward the bay area. Let's hope that we see a lot more of this money going to our local schools in the coming year.

  2. California Competes has just launched a bay area career readiness program designed to build partnerships between colleges, employers, and local governments to improve workforce outcomes.

  3. College Track Northern California has helped nearly 2500 students from underrepresented communities with programs like their Career Discovery Externship where students visit host companies participate in panels, workshops, and experience the work environment firsthand.

  4. LaunchPoint, where I am a proud contributor, provides quality paid internships for low-income and underrepresented students partnering with companies that are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

For most, the end goal of higher education is a career. Education is essential but experience and relationships provide immeasurable value to employers as well. I am so grateful to now be a bridge builder, helping to provide the paid internships that provide that opportunity to everyone.


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