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Inside the minds of first-generation professionals

I stepped into the world of higher education at age 29.

By that time, I’d already worked in seven jobs (including freelancing). I started working at age 17 because there was no money for me to further my studies fulltime. It was just another broken dream that I could do nothing about. I threw my acceptance letter into the bin with a heavy heart and knew that I needed to start earning money.

No one had told me about bursary options (both my parents hadn’t completed matric and were doing the best they could to keep the family fed and clothed). Although I did get my degree through correspondence study, it still felt like I was cheated out of something.

So when I started working at a local university, it felt like poetic justice that I was the one to help others get the chance I’d missed. I don’t think I was the only one to see the hope and desperation that first generation students carried around, trying to keep balanced while dealing with the normal adulting challenges.

During my ten year tenure in higher education fundraising, working with donors who saw the need to help first generation students break the cycle of poverty in their families by being the first one in their families to get a university qualification, I noticed a disturbing trend.

We were giving them financial aid but not really helping them to overcome the psychological and emotional storms they were facing. Some bursary and scholarship programmes provided additional peer to peer and mentoring support, but the majority of bursary students were left to fend for themselves.

It is a complex problem. Overburdened bursary and fundraising offices try their best to catch students who are struggling by connecting them to academic or social support systems. Most universities do try and meet the need for additional psycho-social support by hosting work readiness programmes – but it fails to reach most students.

Eventually, these first generation students finally reach their pinnacle moment: Graduation Day. Families are there with proud eyes and burning hearts. The pride is palpable: “they have done what we were not able to do.”

(The look on my mum’s face as she looked at my degree is still one of my most visceral memories).

And then: they enter the world of work, carrying an invisible net of expectation. They are now first generation professionals – the first in their families to transition from blue to white collar work.

To be the pioneers into the realm of new freedoms is a scary thing. Being the one given all that opportunity also comes with unspoken obligation. An expectation to give back, to provide, to not go too far down the road that you think you’re too ‘big for your boots’.

And they’re left standing on the threshold of obligation and duty – facing a dilemma that you’re not supposed to be anguished about as you tackle the challenges of navigating your first job.

There’s also the cultural dynamic of being raised in social structures where your group identity trumps your individual identity. This affects the way they interact in this new professional world, for example: being unsure of how to speak up in the workplace without upsetting ‘your elders’.

Of course, first generation professionals experience the same challenges as second or third generation professionals. They just face it from a unique perspective and have to overcome more internal barriers to be able to deliver positive work outputs.

Understanding a first-generation professionals inner world:

The Good

Close to their families:

These strong family bonds means that they will most likely seek cohesion with their team. They have a desire to play their part in achieving success.

Accept responsibility:

They’re friends with responsibility, having being introduced at a young age. They will want to rise to the expectations placed on them and will generally have a strong work ethic.

Have a desire to do social good:

Almost all the first generation students I’ve engaged with have a strong desire to make the world a better place. They’ve been helped by benevolent donors and some compassionate university staff and realise what would have happened if they’d fallen through the cracks.
They want to express their generosity through giving someone else a hand up.

Easily express compassion:

They may not have felt understood by their families or peers as they reached for a higher life. Feeling a sense of displacement means that they’ve acquired an ability to understand someone’s story and will find ways to connect to people.

They are resilient:

These young adults have had to face seemingly overwhelming  circumstances in their homes and communities. They are tough. They are fiesty. They have a will to survive. It also makes them extremely loyal to causes they believe in.

The Bad

Harbour a deep sense of shame:

If they had to tell you themselves, this would be difficult to articulate. They are intensely aware of their background, of their economic realities. The world has made them feel like this is an inadequacy, something they have to make up for.

Fighting the guilt:

Guilt is a close cousin of shame. They feel guilty for having the opportunities that their parents didn’t have. They unknowingly fuel this guilt by vowing to do well so that they can support their family, placing more pressure on themselves. No one has taught them how to take care of themselves first so that they can help others in healthier ways.

Stuck in two worlds:

They are keenly aware of their position in the Race of Life. This often surfaces as anger and frustration when they are already three months into their first job and their financial situation is not changing as quickly as they thought it would.

Stuck in two worlds:

They’ve taken on the white collar responsibilities with a blue collar background. And they feel like a fraud in both worlds. When they visit their hometowns, they sense the resentment of childhood friends. When they step into the office, they will take time to allow themselves to enjoy the space and see how much they actually have to offer.

Never feel good enough:

With the right support, they can learn how to be the heroes of their own story and tap into their innate personal power. Until that happens though, they will continue to feel a hole that they are unable to fill, despite all their best efforts to prove their worth.

The Ugly

They suffer from undiagnosed PTSD:

Many first generation professionals have experienced trauma in their childhoods, having being exposed to violence in various forms. Being vulnerable and feeling unsafe has forced them to internalise painful events, which unfortunately will be triggered in the workplace due to unresolved personal issues.

Money management is a mystery to them:

Having grown up facing lack and assimilated negative money habits, they will flounder with money management until there is purposeful and long-term intervention to help them shift to healthier patterns. For example, many dive deep into debt to prove to themselves and their families that they have ‘arrived’ and are successful.

They've wandered into the wrong career path:

They may have obtained a qualification in a field that will make them money, not necessarily one that is aligned to their core talents and interests. In their quest to be the valiant saviour of their families, they may find themselves stuck in jobs they secretly hate but justify due to the pay check. (Eventually, this cognitive dissonance takes its toll and they end up shifting into careers that are a more natural fit in their late twenties/early thirties).

Advice on helping the first generation professionals in your organisation thrive:

  1. Don’t treat them differently: They have a deep need to belong, so if you can help them feel connected, valuable and an essential part of the team, they will be motivated to give you their best work. They are creative and intuitive problem solvers, so harness their insights and help them see the bigger picture of their current job role
  2. Take time to learn about their personal story: First generation professionals want to be seen. They want to be heard. They’ve probably had to stifle their true selves to conform to expected norms, so it is refreshing and liberating to be around someone who creates an atmosphere of safety and acceptance. They can thrive once they feel validated and given “permission” to be who they really are.
  3. Provide mentoring or coaching: Once they enter the world of work, first-generation professionals are keenly aware of all their EQ gaps and are grateful for additional support. I love working with graduates because they are hungry to learn and grow.
  4. Be slower with judgments: It can be easy to assume that someone feels ‘entitled’ but you are probably not aware of all the pressure they are feeling to provide financial support for their families. (Offering financial literary training would help them feel more in control of their finances). I’ve heard many conversations about the entitlement of graduates (first generation in particular). Perhaps their perceived greed is undergirded by their expectation that once they received their first paycheck, all their problems would go away. I understand that there will be some individuals who have a low work ethic and can come across as demanding. They come in all age and cultural groups.
  5. Help them find engaging work assignments: First generation professionals have a need to prove that they can accomplish great things. For them to have successfully completed a tertiary qualification is proof enough that you have a winner on your hands. Don’t be afraid to give them challenging assignments – they might not even realise their innate problem-solving abilities.

I hope you’ve found this article informative and enlightening. Remember this is based on anecdotal evidence (my personal experience and gleaned from my interaction with university students and graduates). If you would like to connect with me and request a talk or workshop on understanding first-generation professionals, you can contact me via email cheryl@wholepersonacademy.com