May 31, 2023
First-generation college graduates can lag behind their peers in educational and professional outcomes, despite comparable skills.
Ryan Secard
First-generation college graduates—that is, people who are the first in their close or extended family to graduate from college—can fly under the radar during recruitment. Despite having suitable skills to enter the workforce on paper, many first-generation graduates have difficulty turning those credentials into careers—often due to factors unrelated to their abilities.
Monique Edmondson, a senior leader of Cisco Inc.’s Employee Experience team, thinks those who are the first in their families to graduate are worth more attention by businesses, both as a group that needs help to succeed and as a talent source worth cultivating. According to Cisco, Edmondson has lately hired over 1,000 first-generation college graduates, including industrial and IT engineers, and she thinks businesses could do a better job in making differences in the lives of new graduates who sometimes slip past consideration in less-meticulous hiring processes.
In an interview, Edmondson told IndustryWeek she started taking special notice of first-generation college graduates after participating in a panel on women’s leadership at San Jose University (Edmondson is also a co-lead at Women of Cisco).
“At the end of the panel, I had over 15 students come up to me, and they were really asking me for help on how to get an internship or how to get a job,” she said, noting that almost all of them were the first in their families to graduate from college. Edmondson told IW she was struck by how discouraged the students seemed, and the inadequacy of her own usual advice.
“My first response to people is typically, well, ‘use your network,’ right? But they don’t have a network!” she said. Some first-generation graduates, Edmondson noted, are also immigrants: “One girl literally moved here from Taiwan a year ago. … How would she have a network?”
The students Edmondson met weren’t underqualified—just unconnected. In some cases, that lack of connections can also lead to a dearth of resume-worthy experiences like internships. For companies looking to find capable but poorly networked hires, Edmondson suggested taking a closer look at applicants’ education experience.
“One thing that companies need to be more open-minded to is project-based delivery within the university. Some of these kids may not have paid work experience … but they’ve done some project-based learning,” she said, referring to projects students work on in groups as part of their classes.
“In those examples, it is important for a student to be able to articulate what they worked on, how they improved a process or product, and their role in the project,” Edmondson said.
And even less immediately striking internships for smaller companies can involve qualifying experiences, Edmondson said, using the example of an intern who built a database or a website for a small company pro bono. In one example, Cisco hired a former lifeguard who automated a schedule for the other lifeguards. “This showed initiative,” Edmondson said.
One of those things Edmondson believes can help employees once they’ve been hired, including first-generation college student employees, is to join an employee resource organization. EROs like the ones available at Cisco are groups of employees with common experiences that let people across the company in different roles communicate and share information.
Edmondson noted that Cisco includes EROs for people early in their careers, as well as for people of various national or demographic backgrounds—as Edmondson pointed out, some first-generation college graduates share a common problem with recent immigrants to the United States—a small or nonexistent network of relevant contacts. Providing them with a way to get in touch with people in similar situations across the company can help alleviate that lack of connections.
“I think that’s one way that people find help, because they can find people like them,” Edmondson said. “A lot of the conversations around professional development are targeted towards [specific] audiences. … You need to find somebody that will help you,” she added.