Why liberal arts can be a good fit for first-gen students

Kathleen Escarcha, staff writerKathleen Escarcha, staff writer

Growing up in an immigrant household, my job prospects were limited to dentist, doctor, or accountant.

Like many students, I viewed college as a path to a stable career, but not exactly an environment to explore my interests. So after completing my Business degree earlier than expected, you can imagine that my decision to stay on a fourth year to complete a degree in Literature, rather than pocket a year of tuition money, didn't go over so well.

During my senior year, I fielded questions from my family like, "can you even get a job with a degree in reading books?" and even questions from myself like, "am I allowed to study something 'fun' instead of practical?"

But while we like to imagine the liberal arts degree as an "elitist specialty only affluent, well-connected students can afford," this old stereotype is on its way out, writes George Anders for The Atlantic.

In 2016, the National Association of Colleges and Employers, surveyed 5,013 graduation seniors asking questions about their family backgrounds and academic choices. The survey found that 33.8% of students most likely to major in the humanities or social sciences were first-generation students. Participants whose parents completed college, on the other hand, only chose humanities 30.4% of the time.

A liberal arts education "isn't a quick path to riches," and low average starting salaries tend to push students to more lucrative vocational degrees like nursing, writes Anders. This push can be especially strong for first-generation students, who already receive an average starting salary 12% below the starting salary of non-first generation students.

But while a liberal arts salary may start low, liberal arts graduates' salaries can surge if they pursue a graduate degree. The Brooking Institution's Hamilton Project found that liberal arts graduates' salaries grow once they complete advanced degrees. For example, undergraduate history majors often pursue law degrees and later become lawyers, notes Anders.

But for many first-generation students, a degree in liberal arts doesn't even cross their mind.

What do rich kids study in college

Often, first-gen students arrive on campus with plans to become a doctor, says Dan Porterfield, president of Franklin and Marshall College. But once these students discover other fields like "earth sciences... or start to fall in love with the idea of being a writer," they begin to broaden their vision of how they can contribute to society, explains Porterfield.

Anders identifies a few ways that colleges can help support liberal arts students without an elite background.

Faculty mentors can be a "powerful early propellant," he notes. In fact, a survey from the Great Lakes Colleges Association found that students with a faculty mentor were almost twice as likely to achieve a leadership position later in their career.

Other propellants include dedication to learning after college, the ability to move to a job hub, and "the audacity to dream big," writes Anders.

For Mai-Ling Garcia, a first-generation student at Mount San Jacinto Community College, it was encouragement from a psychology professor and her own audacity to dream bigger than her "nonexistent long term plans," that pushed her to pursue a sociology degree at University of California, Berkley (UC Berkley), writes Anders.

Although the leap from community college was difficult and Garcia was mostly fueled by bowls of ramen, she began to track down "funky scholarships" that ultimately allowed her to attend UC Berkley on a full ride, she says.  

How to prepare low-income students for the job market

While Garcia didn't begin her college journey feeling "destined for greatness," her liberal arts degree powered her through positions in a nonprofit, the Department of Labor, and now, the City of Oakland. In her current position, Garcia appreciates her difficult journey for the valuable perspective it's given her, writes Anders.

For Dylann Brown-Bramble, a psychology student at Rutgers University, finding a support network of similar peers was the key to his success, writes Anders.

As a Dominican-American transfer student, he felt disconnected from the university. But after enrolling in Braven, a career accelerator program for both liberal arts and vocational students, he began to build a professional network on campus, notes Anders.

Brown-Bramble and his Braven peers practiced interviewing together, built LinkedIn profiles, and encouraged each other's professional and academic pursuits. Surrounded by students from similar backgrounds, Brown-Bramble "discovered new ways to share his heritage" that would resonate in his job interviews, he notes.

According to Shirley Collado, president of Ithaca College, career-accelerators harness the "power of the cohort." Among small groups of motivated peers, students can "build social capital where it didn't exist before," she explains.

Now an intern at Novo Nordisk, he sees a law degree in his near future. For Brown-Bramble, finding his footing with like-minded peers at school "was liberating" (Anders, The Atlantic, 8/2)


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