I was a panelist at the conference of the National Partnership for Educational Access (NPEA) recently. The topic of our panel was first-generation students. I gave the overview on the issues confronting first generation college students and my colleagues and I then focused on solutions from our varied institutional perspectives. One of the issues had to do with being sure the student found a college that fit who they were and their goals, with the culture and support system that would help sustain them. Given tools these students could survive and thrive in all kinds of schools once they understood the culture. However, the topic began to resonate with me relative to articles I have been reading on how employers seem to be having trouble finding "qualified" employees. The issues discussed included the ability to communicate, to multitask and to engage with clients, colleagues and bosses appropriately.
What struck me was that as we talked at the conference about how to help first-generation students fit in at colleges, especially those which may be very different from the student's experience in terms of both socio-economic and racial diversity, the same issues would emerge in the workplace. If first-generation, minority and low-income students are becoming a more significant portion of the college-going population and corporate culture is no more in their background than college culture then there will be increasingly a lack of fit in both environments. My premise here is not that we need to change corporate environments though a case could certainly be made for that -- that is a whole other article. But what I would posit is that colleges and students have to do a better job of understanding the extent to which college is preparation for fit in the workplace.
There are four things that I think a student should focus on in college that will have the effect of helping to prepare to succeed in environments that may be alien.
First is reading. A former student of mine had the chance to go to a summer research program for high-potential, diverse students. He was a first-generation, Black male coming from a public college. The campus where he went was a highly competitive school and the students who attended this summer program were from comparable schools all over the country. When this young man came back to our campus he asked for a reading list. He said that he realized how little he had been exposed to what we think of as the literary canon. The list on the website Goodreads is a good example. He had read few, and I had read most. A combination of a reading family, a rigorous high school and taking lots of literature at Bryn Mawr made all the difference for me, an African American woman. My high school classmates and I remember the summer before we decamped for college spending time sitting on the living room floor of our favorite English teacher who gave us what were then cutting edge books including Vonnegut, Salinger, Updike and Joseph Heller's Catch 22 among many others. All are on the 100 list; and once a reader always a reader. My son who came to it lateish now posts regularly on cultural issues as discussed in articles in the Atlantic or Mother Jones. Reading has made all the difference in his personal and professional life where, as a Black male, he has been able to fit in cultural environments that many young Black men, less literate, might not -- much like my student.
Reading also teaches language and writing. We are more inclined to write well when we read lots. It increases vocabulary and exposes students to different styles of writing and what quality writing looks and feels like. I was asked early in my corporate career to write speeches for executives and memos for colleagues. My writing skills, I think, had much to do with my advancement. My ability to "get" cultural references, as when someone says something is a "catch 22" has meant that I fit.
In my own teaching I have found literature useful in explaining to students aspects of human behavior. Works like The Great Gatsby or The Grapes of Wrath are splendid texts on identity and class. A play (film) like Glengarry Glen Ross can teach explicitly about workplace dynamics. Which leads me to note that we also have to be explicit in sharing with students why what we want them to read is relevant to them.
Second, students need to align themselves with people who can help them on many fronts. They need to begin with faculty and advisers. They can learn some of the workplace social and negotiating skills from these encounters which are relatively low-risk. But they can also learn explicitly by asking questions and for guidance. Just learning how to ask questions is a workplace skill. It delivers a message of humility and interest. Perhaps most important is that these relationships are the beginning of the all powerful network. Finding people who will believe in you, mentor you and advance you begins with college relationships with administrators, professors, alumni and staff. So students must be urged to engage actively with all of these and shown sometimes how to do it. NYU has long had a practice of "training" students before the student was allowed to engage in a networking interview with an alumnus. If they are coming from a place where people do not hold executive positions, they have to be told how to navigate such encounters and that it is OK to do so. I tell students all the time when I speak to groups that they can reach out to me. Of the hundreds of cards I have given them there are always only a small handful who take me up on it. My audiences are almost always first-generation, low-income and students of color. It has been my experience that student of more privilege may feel more empowered.
The third thing students must learn to do is observe. What do people do in restaurants with white tablecloths? What do they do and talk about in museums? And at work... how do those in leadership roles talk to each other? How do you talk to the boss? Media gives us lots of ambiguous behavior. House of Cards is bad behavior dressed nicely. But it does reflect a certain reality of connivance that is part of a workplace culture of mean couched in civil discourse. Students need to know how to play the game with the face of civility. Better though to be explicit in discussing with students why this sort of behavior is not a good idea and what might counter it. The bottom line is that they need to know how people that they aspire to be like actually behave at work. And even if the outcomes are not all we might wish there is generally the veneer of civility and manners to be emulated. Being overtly crude, for example, is not generally good for advancement. Students need to see how this works and ideally take the high road. But first they have to observe to know there are behavioral options and protocols. Being part of student government or campus committees can help them see how people function in these environments. Some campuses work to be sure students are on college task forces and committees.
Finally the next thing that students have to do to fit in the workplace is work. They have to do work in order to observe work. That work can come in the form of internships or it can be the job that pays the bills but does not seem important. Being a barista you can learn about the power of excellent customer service and you can be an observer of human behavior. It is an important experience and is marketable if played properly. Work can also be service on behalf of others. Creating a fund-raiser or campus event is work requiring a number of high level skills. Volunteering for an organization a student believes in may provide a chance to engage also with people like those they may want to be some day. The "All Stars", a program based in New York (and other cities) has an annual fund raising event where the students it serves are central. They greet the guests, are themselves dressed to the nines, sit at the tables with the donors and are generally around both observing and being observed. It is a powerful experience on both sides. Programs like this one or Futures and Options, Ladders for Leaders and others are important precisely because they give real work experience to students who need it and lack the cultural frame of reference. Structured experiences translate key cues for students.
Doing lots of work at once usually teaches how to multitask. So an employer will look more favorably on the student who graduates with a high GPA and has a job and has a couple of serious extracurricular activities with leadership roles and has a hobby that takes time too. Doing things will help students fit at work. But we have to tell them that.
We cannot expect the same students who are not familiar with the college climate to adapt to a corporate environment and to know how to navigate at work if we do not explicitly give them the exposure and understanding that they need. We have to connect the dots. We are talking about students who feel the diploma is the ticket to the work world they envision but do not know that college is where they learn to fit so that they can fit at work.
Learn more about Marcia Y. Cantarella, Ph.D and her book I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide at www.collegecountdown.com