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Grit and the First-Generation College Student

In my work as a career coach, I have the privilege to work with first-generation college students. I don’t use the word “privilege” lightly as a throwaway marketing term. The career coaching relationship with first-generation college students is not a balanced relationship. It is certainly a win-win partnership, but I have found that I am learning far more from these amazing young adults than the coaching that I provide to them.

The term “First-Generation College Student” is self-explanatory as the first individual in a family to attend college. The term “Grit” for this discussion needs more definition. Grit is one of the new soft skills that recruiters and employers are focusing on to identify quality candidates and employees for their organizations. Angela Lee Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania has been conducting groundbreaking studies on grit. Professor Duckworth defines grit as the quality that enables individuals to work hard and stick to their long-term passions and goals. In her research with Chicago public school students, she found that grit was the single greatest predictor of graduation even when matched for all other characteristics, including income and test scores. Employers and career specialists have taken notice which has driven the rise in the value of grit as a soft skill and predictor of employment success.

So, what does grit have to do with first-generation college students? Imagine (or remember) the fear and trepidation you felt the first time you stepped onto your college campus as a Freshman. I was fortunate to have the support of an upper middle-class family. College was challenging but I always had a safety net and the guidance of parents and siblings who had been through the college experience before me. Many first-generation college students come from challenging economic backgrounds. There is typically no economic safety net and no family members to offer shared learnings and experience. According to data from the Washington Post, only 40% of first-generation college students graduate within 6 years as compared to 55% of their peers whose parents attended college.

This disparity extends into the post-graduation job search process. A survey completed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that job search success rates of first-generation students were significantly lower than those of their counterparts. We know that 80% of all jobs filled in the US each year are never advertised and filled only through networking and referrals. The ability for a college graduate to quickly build and leverage a professional network is critical for success in finding the first job after graduation. Students with parents who graduated college and are now in professional careers have a head start on networking. First-generation college students may find themselves starting at square one when it comes to building out the professional network.

Given the challenges facing first-generation college students, grit must certainly play a role for those students that do graduate and secure professional positions after graduation from college. My qualitative assessment from working with these first-generation students is that the grit factor is off the charts. I am literally “blown away” by their tenacity, passion and vision for the long-term goals they have set out to achieve. I draw a few key lessons from these first-generation students:

  • If I am in HR or recruitment, I need to be actively targeting first-generation students for employment. Connect with colleges and universities in an active outreach program to identify and recruit first-generation students for internships and full employment.

  • We need to find ways to help remove institutional barriers for first-generation college students and increase their graduation rates and employment rates. Supporting organizations like Cincinnati Youth Collaborative (CYC) that focus on mentoring these first-generation students is a great way to start. (Author’s note: I am an avid supporter of CYC).

  • If you are a first-generation college student, start networking and seek out a mentor. Equally important, build an elevator pitch that features your first-generation status. Grit is a skill to be advertised and celebrated, not hidden.

And finally, if you are fortunate enough to have parents who went to college, take note. Grit is not a skill that is mutually exclusive to first-generation college students. Find opportunities in your life to demonstrate your grit and determination. We all face obstacles, some larger than others. Our grit and determination will be measured (and valued) in how we face and overcome those obstacles.

Dan Troup is the founder of the AdvantEdge Careers coaching service. If you are interested in learning more about how a certified career coach can assist you in your job search, please contact AdvantEdge Careers at:


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