NACE Logo NACE Center Logo
National Association of Colleges and Employers NACE Center for Career Development and Talent Acquisition®
mobile menu
  • Diplomas With Direction: A Qualitative Study of Career Counseling Support for First-Generation College Students

    August 01, 2018 | By Pamela E. Krieger Cohen and Ane Turner Johnson

    Special Populations

    TAGS: counseling, first generation, journal

    NACE Journal, August 2018

    One quarter of today’s college enrollment is comprised of first-generation college students (FGCS).1 These students, the first in their families to go to college, often lack sufficient role models to guide them through their higher education experience.2 As a result, many FGCS graduate ill-prepared to transition from college into the professional work force,3 despite having pursued higher education for the financial mobility a college degree is expected to provide.4 An individual’s personal connections—what is commonly referred to as their “social capital”5—are often considered key to career advancement.6 Without a network of well-informed family, friends, or colleagues with collective career planning expertise, FGCS graduate at lower rates and remain unemployed and underemployed longer than their non-first-generation peers.7 Career development practitioners, sitting at the intersection of academic and career decision-making, are therefore primed to help students fill in this social capital void, helping FGCS feel less isolated from—and more informed about—the career planning process. To that end, this study explored how career counselors who had been first-generation college students themselves use their own college-to-career experiences to support their FGCS clients today.


    The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine how career counselors who had been the first in their families to go to college use their personal experiences to support their first-generation college student clients. Participants were recruited from four-year institutions, as this characteristic aligns with the increasing employment demand for a bachelor’s degree.8 With higher enrollment of FGCS at public institutions than private,9 the sample for this study concentrated on participants at the former. Participants were recruited through national and regional professional organizations, posts on personal and professional social media sites, and through individual e-mails to the career centers at more than 200 institutions in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. 

    Fourteen career counselors from across the United States participated in the study. By region, four participants were from the Northeast, four were from the South Atlantic, three were from the West, two were from the South, and one respondent was from the Southwest.10

    The sample consisted primarily of well-seasoned professionals, most having worked in the field of career development for at least five years. The four newer career development practitioners shared during the course of the study that they had at least three prior years of other professional experience. Although career development practitioners are not required to hold advanced degrees,11 all participants in this study did: 10 held master’s degrees and four held doctorates.

    The sample was composed predominately of women, reflecting the national composition of the “education administrators” and “counselors” work force (65 percent and 73 percent, respectively).12

    Despite efforts to recruit participants from diverse backgrounds, most participants were white (57 percent, n=8), which, while reflective of the racial and ethnic make-up of the counseling field,13 is incongruous with that of FGCS, who are predominantly students of color.14 (Note: Of the remaining six participants, five identified as Hispanic/Latino and one identified as multiracial.)

    Through individual interviews, data were collected about participants’ experiences enrolling in and graduating from college, their early career development, and their roles as career counselors. The audio files were transcribed and the contents subjected to a multi-level coding process.15,16 Specific attention was paid to the question of how the participants use their personal experiences to support their FGCS clients.


    The findings from the study indicate that FGCS face a number of career exploration and planning challenges that might not be readily identified or recognized. A second key theme that emerged from the data is that FGCS especially benefit from career counselors’ efforts to tie career planning into other aspects of campus life, e.g., choosing a major, getting involved in campus activities. Lastly, the findings show that participants advocate for practices that normalize career self-management for first-generation college students. 

    Recognizing FGCS career planning challenges

    Participants’ stories about their students highlight a number of career planning obstacles that warrant special consideration. Choosing a major and identifying a career path are among the most common struggles identified by the career counselors.

    Lolita* often encounters students who “don’t know what to do with their majors” or only know of one possibility and aren’t interested in it, like the students who “don’t want to be a police officer, and they just majored in criminal justice.”

    Jennifer’s FGCS clients fear the consequences of changing their minds: “They don't know how to explain it to their parents. I had a student who wanted to change his major, [but] he was going, ‘I’ve been telling everybody that I was [going to] be X since I was 10 years old…. So now if I change my major, it’ll be embarrassing for me and my parents,’” she says.

    Geography is also a significant factor in how FGCS
    approach . . . their
    longer-term career plans.

    Leigh similarly sees students who are “afraid to try [something] because they think if they fail, they’re back to square one.” She actively works to counter those feelings by “giving them the license [to explore], the support to say ‘No one is going to think less of [me] if this particular experience doesn’t work out.’” Imperative to helping FGCS is understanding the hesitation they may have in admitting they’re not happy with or doing well in their major and recognizing that students may have limited perspective connecting academic studies to a range of career paths.

    Geography is also a significant factor in how FGCS approach both their studies as well as their longer-term career plans. Amanda works in the Midwest, where there are many FGCS in the College of Agriculture who “only know the farm and come here for an opportunity to supplement the income of the farm.” As their career counselor, she strives to “help them realize… they can have a job off the farm, and [still] add value to their family.”

    Kevin, who works in a part of the United States with few industry options, assists many frustrated recent graduates whose only job offer is in retail sales. He encourages them to be the best at whatever they’re doing because “[This region] is a small place…. People know who you are. So, when that job in the state sector or federal sector comes available, so-and-so’s [going to call the store and] you want them to say good things about you.”

    Despite the career development field’s active encouragement of experiential education,17,18 geography can impede access to internships or networking opportunities. Veronica is a career counselor in a suburban town more than two hours away from the “big city,” which is the source for most of the college’s enrollment. She notes: “Unfortunately, when you come up here, transportation’s not the same, and if you’re from the city, you usually don’t have a car or a license. Getting around here is really hard [and] there’s not much to do.”

    A key takeaway from these findings is the importance of career development practitioners taking into consideration the factors of campus location as well as the geography from which the institution draws its students when providing career guidance.

    Career centers as conduits

    Improving career planning among FGCS means advocating for a campus-wide support system that goes beyond receipt of a diploma.

    Ruth demonstrates how partnerships with the offices that see students first are key to early engagement: “I would say the number one thing is just making sure we have visibility…working very closely with academic advisers, using every partnership we can come up with to build relationships—the housing and residence life, military and veteran's programs, campus activities, Greek life, anything where there is a population of students, [we do] the best we can to work with their leadership, so that we can be invited into meetings, and classes, and things that allow us to provide that exposure.”

    Kevin concurs: “By the time we get to a point where we're doing a resume or talking about an application process or an interview that's coming up, this comes with almost three or four years [of] having a really good relationship already.” These acts exemplify the power of early engagement with FGCS, sometimes as early as their first semester of college. By inserting themselves in other areas of campus life, career counselors demonstrate that career planning should not be seen as an independent task, but an ongoing process embedded in all aspects of degree pursuit.

    Career counselors can also be the link that connects students to others across campus. Lolita talks with her students about the importance of having a “cheerleader, somebody [to] support you as you’re looking for an internship, or somebody that kind of keeps you in balance, in check about [career planning].”

    Recognizing that a parent may not be playing that role, Lolita acts more strategically: “With [some] students, I find that they may not have the support at home…. so that’s when I have them…talk about where can [they] find the support, and what’s the type of support that they need? So, do they need to maybe find one of their professors? Do they have a professor who they admire or look up to? Is there an academic adviser or other adviser that they look up to? That’s how I begin those conversations with them.”

    Institutions of higher education are complex systems, with a career counselor being just one professional students may encounter over the course of their academic study. Institutional structures that already promote enrollment, persistence, and degree completion need to consider the “what’s next?” for its graduates, particularly those who are the first in their families to attend college. The coordination of such efforts can begin with well-informed career development practitioners whose roles afford them the opportunity to enlighten their colleagues in both the academic and student affairs spheres of campus life.

    Normalizing career self-management

    Engaging FGCS in career planning means making the process meaningful and accessible. Alejandra emphasizes the importance of reflection when meeting with a student: “Let’s talk about what that work-study job is teaching you. And what your major is teaching you. And what really calls to you. What are the themes that run through all [these experiences]…and let’s try to think about what you can do here on campus and post-graduation that relates to those themes.”

    As the director of her career center, she avoids the practice of just “teach[ing] people to write their resumes and giv[ing] them tests to tell them what they should be for the rest of their lives,” but instead leads her staff in “trying to normalize a level of self-knowledge and career self-management that every student can apply for the long term.” These practices aim to encourage FGCS to recognize that there are valuable connections between their college experiences and their future careers that may not be evident at first glance.

    Jane, who provides guidance to students across several campuses, has “designed the career services program for multiple points of access so that wherever a student [is] in [his or her] path, or geographically, [the student] always [has] access to me.”

    Serving a largely nontraditional student population, Jane also designed and teaches “a two-credit general elective online class…so [students] who are working so much, or who have kids at home and who are working, and can’t really make time to do individualized appointments can take that class.” This extraordinary step of offering a range of career service modalities is an indication of the value Jane places on making career planning accessible to her students. 

    Similarly, Liz makes sure her office is a place where FGCS feel welcome, an action she describes as an “overarching theme” in her practice, based on her own experiences as a student: “[I strive to] be a positive influence for my students because…I heard negative messages all the time, and [the career center] felt like this inner club. I never want a student to feel like they have to be a certain type of student to be able to use career services and to feel like they’re not going to succeed or that they don’t have options. I never want to be someone who sends that message to a student.”

    Recognizing that FGCS may not inherently know or value the services a career center provides, may be hesitant to seek out assistance, or may have personal complications that make visiting the career center a struggle, these counselors demonstrate a number of ways to make career planning meaningful and the resources accessible.

    Discussion & Implications

    The question this study sought to address is how career counselors who had been first-generation college students use their personal experiences to support their FGCS students today. A core element of the participants’ practice was taking the time to get to know their students. By encouraging students to share their insecurities as well as their interests, career development practitioners can help their FGCS clients define self-success and provide concrete ways in which the career center can help. The literature supports this approach. Flores and Heppner19 identify knowing “how the world of work operates for individuals from various racial/ethnic groups” as a crucial skill for multicultural career counselors, and other researchers20 advocate for the narrative theory career development model, which “provides a platform for exploring issues affecting students now and that may later affect their career decisions.”21  

    The findings also demonstrate that first-generation college students may not be actively encouraged in their academic endeavors.

    The findings also demonstrate that first-generation college students may not be actively encouraged in their academic endeavors. This topic is present in other FGCS literature as well, indicating that students whose parents did not attend college sometimes face parental pressure to “contribute to the family or move out and start their own family…just as the parents had to do when they completed their secondary education.”22 Even those who are supported by their parents may still lack an effective support system. The participants in this study described significant efforts they make to collaborate with other offices on campus as a way to expand the career center’s reach and to let others know they can serve as a FGCS resource. Such actions are encouraged in the practice of career development, with much emphasis on the building of social capital.23

    Further, participants also take into account the geographic region in which they work, including specific industry sectors found only in certain parts of the United States; higher-than-average immigrant populations; and the local, statewide, or national pool from which the institution enrolls its students. Such a practice seems aligned with multicultural career counseling. For example, Flores and Heppner24 note that, “Culturally competent career counselors must be aware of the people who live in their communities.” However, there is a lack of literature examining geography as a specific factor in students’ career decision making, leaving an opening for further exploration.

    The practices described above need not be limited to those who work under the auspices of a career services office. The findings of this study bring to light the many professional touch-points a student likely encounters throughout his or her college education, indicating a wealth of opportunity for not only career counselors, but faculty, academic advisers, and other administrators to keep these students focused on post-graduation career success and poised to share their positive associations with career planning with future generations of college graduates.

    Recommendations for Practice

    The participants in this study had very clear and direct connections with their students, but the findings suggest that their practices—namely, getting to know their students, sharing information about themselves, and ensuring each student has a support system—are adaptable for all career development professionals who serve first-generation college student clients.

    Getting to know students. This practice begins with encouraging students to share. While some services, such as resume reviews and mock interviews, are largely transactional, extra effort is encouraged to inquire about students and the circumstances that have led them to the career center. Learning about students’ interests, goals, and fears, asking them to define what success looks like, and providing concrete ways in which the career center can help can be of great benefit to first-generation college students.

    Sharing personal information. As a career counselor, offering details about your experience—such as college major, career path, and struggles faced as a student—may reassure FGCS that they are not alone. Students may know little about professional staff and fail to see any connections between the career development practitioner’s life circumstances and their own. Used sparingly, storytelling in response to a student’s words or actions has the power to encourage deeper discourse and longer-term engagement in career planning.

    Ensuring a support system. Helping FGCS find a guide who will hold them accountable to themselves and their goals is a crucial approach to supporting this population. An effective technique is to ask students who they consider to be their role models, or which professors and staff members they respond to best. Suggesting campus and community organizations that provide either formal or informal mentorship can serve to broaden students’ networks. Additionally, consider colleagues known to be sensitive to the needs of first-generation college students and proactively making the introduction increases the chances that students will follow through on a future meeting.


    This study specifically examined the ways in which career counselors who had been first-generation college students support first-generation college students today. The parameters of the study, while limited in scope, yielded findings that indicate applicability beyond the framework of first generation to first generation. Ultimately, the findings of the study suggest that there are a number of steps all career development practitioners can take to positively impact FGCS’ experiences throughout and beyond college by instilling confidence and informing options around career exploration and planning.

    * Each participant in this study self-selected an alias.

    End Notes

    1 Redford, J., & Hoyer, K. M. (2017). First generation and continuing-generation college
    students: A comparison of high school and postsecondary experiences(NCES 2018-009). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education., National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

    2 Martinez, J. A., Sher, K. J., Krull, J. L., & Wood, P. K. (2009). “Blue-collar scholars?: Mediators and moderators of university attrition in first-generation college students.” Journal of College Student Development, 50(1), 87-103.

    3 Parks-Yancy, R. (2012). “Interactions into opportunities: Career management for low-
    income, first-generation African American college students” Journal of College Student Development, 53(4), 510-523.

    4 Shelton, C. (2011). “Helping first-generation college students succeed.” Journal of
    Psychological Issues in Organizational Culture, 1(4). 63-75. doi: 10.1002/jpoc.20041

    5 Woolcock, M., & Narayan, D. (2000). “Social capital: Implications for development
    theory, research, and policy.”The World Bank Research Observer, 15(2), 225-249.

    6 Dumais, S. A., & Ward, A. (2010). “Cultural capital and first-generation college success.” Poetics, 38, 245–265.

    7 Parks-Yancy.

    8 Moving the goalposts: How demand for a bachelor's degree is reshaping the
    workforce. (2014). Retrieved from Burning Glass Technologies website:

    9 Engle, J., & Tinto, V. (2008). Moving beyond access: College success for first-generation
    students. Retrieved from Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education website:

    10 U.S. Census Map,

    11 Pritchard, C. J., & Maze, M. (2016, August 1). NCDA launches new credentialing initiative. Career Convergence Web Magazine. Retrieved from

    12 U. S. Department of Labor. (2017). Most common occupations for women [web page].
    Retrieved from

    13 DataUSA. (2015). Counselors. Diversity: Demographic information on Counselors in the
    US [webpage]. Retrieved from #demographics

    14 Redford & Hoyer.

    15 Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory (2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

    16 Glaser, B. G. (2013). “Staying open: The use of theoretical codes in GT.” Grounded Theory Review, 12(1).

    17 Crain, A. (2016, November 1): Exploring the implications of unpaid internships. NACE Journal. Retrieved from

    18 Stack, K. & Fede, J. (2016, November 1). “Internships as a pedagogical approach to soft-
    skill development.” NACE Journal. Retrieved from

    19 Flores, L. Y., & Heppner, M. J. (2002). “Multicultural career counseling: Ten essentials
    for training.” Journal of Career Development, 28(3), 181-202. doi:10.1023/A:1014018321808, p. 184.

    20 Hughes, A. N., Gibbons, M. M., & Mynatt, B. (2013). “Using narrative career counseling
    with the underprepared college student.” Career Development Quarterly, 61(1), 40. doi:10.1002/j.2161-0045.2013.00034

    21 Ibid.

    22 Mehta, S. S., Newbold, J. J., & O'Rourke, M. A. (2011). “Why do first-generation students fail?” College Student Journal, 45(1), 20-35, p. 21.

    23 Dumais & Ward.

    24 Flores & Heppner, p. 183.

    Pamela E. Krieger CohenPamela E. Krieger Cohen, Ed.D., is the associate director of STEM career advising in the Office of Career Services at Princeton University, guiding undergraduates through the exploration of professional and academic careers across a broad range of industries. She has more than two decades of career development experience, including prior roles at Stevens Institute of Technology and the Anisfield School of Business – Ramapo College of New Jersey. Throughout her career, she has focused on meeting the needs of specialized populations, including international students, nontraditional learners, and first-generation college students. Cohen recently earned her doctorate in educational leadership from Rowan University and holds a master of science degree in counseling and a bachelor’s degree in social studies education from West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

    Ane Turner JohnsonAne Turner Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of educational leadership at Rowan University. Johnson is an international education researcher, with a focus African higher education. She is also a first-generation college student. Johnson teaches research methods and higher education content courses in the Ed.D. program. She earned her doctorate in higher education administration from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).

  • Practicing Law Insitute
    NACE Professional Development