Final Project: First generation students graduating college

It’s a Saturday afternoon, but Elisa Livingston, a civil engineering major at Northeastern University, does not have the day off. Although she’s currently working full-time as a part of Northeastern’s co-op program, her weekends are often just as busy as her weekdays. Today, she is spending the morning at her kitchen table with a stack of books and her laptop, writing essays for graduate school and studying for the GRE exams.

As a first-generation college student, Livingston is aware of the added pressure that she faces to do well in school, and to be successful afterward. Her mother emigrated from Colombia to the United States when Elisa was young, and since then, she has been taking advantage of every opportunity that she can to make her family proud.

“Going to school and graduating from a university is a big deal for my family,” said Livingston. “It’s been a great experience, and I’ve definitely taken advantage of all the opportunities that Northeastern has to offer.”

Unfortunately, not all first-generation college students do as well as Livingston. According to a study done by UCLA and republished in Concordia University, while 42 percent of students whose parents attended college graduate within four years, only 27 percent of first generation college students will graduate within that time frame.

Some schools, however, are establishing programs that help first generation students navigate the confusing and often overwhelming world of

Shannon Pittman and Leroy Jackson work in the Opportunity Scholarship and Outreach Programs office at Northeastern University.  They oversee four to five scholarship programs designated for first generation students, and they also provide much of the support that may not be available at home.

“First generation college students are coming from families that have zero exposure to college. They don’t have a figure in their household that they can use as a point of reference, they don’t have a role model in the college arena that they can follow, so we try to serve that purpose,” said Jackson.

Pittman agrees that the lack of exposure to college that first generation college students have received puts them at an instant disadvantage. “It trickles back to the opportunities that they receive before they get to college,” he said.

Northeastern University is certainly not the only college that is attempting to bridge the gap between first generation college students and other students. There are programs such as Bottom Line, which follows students from their junior or senior year of high school throughout college, helping them apply to college and helping students throughout their college careers. Boston University also offers a program for first generation college students, First Generation Connection, which “serves as a resources for students to ensure a smooth and successful transition from high school to college life and beyond.”

Victoria Kacprzak is a junior at Boston University who has relied on the schools program to help her throughout college. “My parents really want the best out of my four years of college, but its not like they could give me advice because they didn’t go through it. So, I do rely on the BU First Gen program to help me out with settling into college, and working out with my time management and classes or extracurricular activities,” said Kacprzak, who is majoring in neuroscience.

Carols Florian, a senior at Suffolk University, has been involved in Bottom Line since her senior year of high school. “I have support from home, but if I had a question I wouldn’t go to them because they don’t know, my parents don’t really know much about the system here,” said Florian, who is double majoring in government and applied legal studies. “The support that normal students get from home, the first generation college students won’t.”

Kacprzak and Florian are just a few examples of the countless first generation college students that benefit from supportive programs at school.  Pittman believes that programs, such as those that exist in the Opportunity Scholarship and Outreach Programs office, are highly beneficial, and that more schools should establish them.

“I think a lot institutions would benefit from having a program like this at their school,” said Pittman. “I do see the value of having a program that follows them throughout their entire career… Every year, every semester there’s new challenges that come up.”

Jackson added, “The office itself is very needed. I would say that 40 to 50 percent of students wouldn’t be successful without an office like this to get them started.”

Due to the combination of support at home and programs through school, students such as Livingston, Kacprzak and Florian are beginning to think about college graduation and the significance it will have not only in their lives, but in the lives of their families as well.

“For a first generation college student it really changes where they’re going to be going, hopefully if they’re using what they’ve received right. It really changes their life in a lot of ways,” said Pittman.

“It’s going to be a big achievement, for sure,” said Kacprzak of the day she receives her college degree. “It’s going to make me super proud, and also it will definitely make my parents proud. They’ve sacrificed so much for me for me to just be here and they sent me to really good schools in high school and middle school, so for me to finally be able to complete college and complete my studies and to be one of the first in my family to do it all, it’s going to make me feel beyond happy, and my parents like ten times beyond happy. It will be a really good feeling.”

Livingston, the oldest in her family, knows the significance of graduating college. For all students, graduation is a big accomplishment, but for students like Livingston, it can change the whole family dynamic.

“There are so many people that are riding off of this and that look up to me, like my cousins and my siblings. I’m supposed to set an example and I’m supposed to do good, so there’s definitely a lot of pressure,” she said.

Already thinking about walking across the stage in May, Livingston is trying to get as many extra graduation tickets as she can, as family will be visiting from around the country, as well as Columbia. But she knows that there’s one person that will be especially proud.

“For my mom, specifically, this is why she came to this country, for that moment, for me to graduate from school, from college,” said Livingston.

Making the most of your winter break

Winter Snow Path

This past week was Thanksgiving break, and it got me thinking about what college seniors can be doing this winter to help them get a head start in their Spring semester. Although this is technically “time off,” if it is used constructively, it can help make the last semester of you senior year much easier, and a lot happier.

One great way to spend some of your time this break is to scout websites for companies that are hiring. Try out  to see what type of job openings are currently available in your field and in your area. Research companies that are hiring to see if they would be a good fit, and keep a running list of those that you would be interested in. Also, if your feeling especially curious, you can compare different salaries for similar careers on This may help you decide what specific career path is right for you (and your student loans!)

Although it may be too early to go on actual interviews, try making time for some informational interviews. Call or email anyone you can think of that has a job you would potentially be interested in. Try to make some time to sit down and discuss their career path and their current job, and if it is compatible with what you would want to do. This is another great way to get ideas for your future.

Don’t forget about networking while you have time off. You’ll probably be out and about quite often, so try to (subtly) tell everyone you see that you’ll be graduating soon and are on the job hunt. Be sure to talk about you major and the type of jobs that you are interested in. You just never know who could have a lead on an open job position.

Finally, be sure that you take time to rest, relax, and spend time with your family and friends. After all, this is most likely the last “winter break” you’ll ever have. The last semester of college is very hectic, so be sure to take advantage of all the down time that you can so that you come back ready to take on the world.

Photo by Flickr user Barbara and republished here under a Creative Commons license. 

Beating senioritis

College Senior

I am counting down the days until I am done with my undergraduate college career. Since I finish in December, senioritis has kicked in weeks ago. With all of the things that I want to do in my last few weeks of college, almost last on that list is school work. I call that senioritis, when school work slips down your list of priorities. Fortunately, I’ve found little ways to battle senioritis, even if I have to promise myself an eggnog latte for making it to class, or not allowing myself to go out until I’ve written four pages for my Poli Sci term paper, or, a personal favorite, having my roommate change my Facebook password until I’m done with my assignments for the week.

Maybe you are not as deep in as I am. Not sure if you have senioritis? Check out this list courtesy of BuzzFeed. It may be aimed towards high school seniors, but I’m pretty sure it’s completely applicable to college seniors as well.

Now that you’ve officially been diagnosed with senioritis, it’s time to fight it. This article from U.S. News actually offers helpful tips that may keep you motivated and doing well throughout your last year of college. It uses tips from real college seniors to help you push through these last couple of months. Something that I have been practicing throughout college is time management and organization, which is very helpful, according to the article.

Martino says that time management and using a planner has helped her make enough time to manage work, friends, and academics.

Here is another article that offers tips to cure your senioritis. Some of them are fun, like planning a mini vacation, while others are more practical, such as taking a class for pass/fail. A suggestion that I really liked was to mentor a freshman:

Consider mentoring a first-year student in an on-campus mentoring program. You’ll regain some perspective, realize how well-off you have it, and help someone else out along the way.

If all else fails, remember that you are just months (if not less) away from something that you have been working towards for years. Whenever I’m feeling less than motivated, I remember what my mom has been telling me all semester long: “You’re going to miss all this when it’s over.” She’s probably right.

Photo by Flickr user Neon Tommy and  republished here under a Creative Commons license. 

At home with a first generation college senior

Elisa Livingston is a very busy college senior with the added pressure of being the very first in her family to graduate college. This past Saturday, I spent the day with Livingston while she studied for various exams. Livingston showed me around her apartment and gave me an idea of what a typical morning is like for her.

Check out the photo story above to see how Livingston spends her Saturdays.  You can also find out more about Livingston in my final story, coming soon.

Dealing with stress

Meditating Outside

It’s about that time– the semester is winding down, and you’re probably facing a pile of work. For many of us, that makes these next few weeks a very stressful time. For seniors, the added pressure of finding a job and applying to grad school can make the stress seem almost unbearable. I know that I have been non-stop worrying about securing a job, but I also have to deal with passing all of my classes, in addition to work and volunteering. Sometimes, it just feels like there are not enough hours in the day to get everything done. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there are a few ways that you can fight off the stress, clear your head, and be ready to take on the world.

WebMD has 10 great tips to reduce stress. They are all natural, and they are all free. A personal favorite of mine is to reach out to others. Whenever I’m feeling like I just can’t keep up with all of the demands, I pick up the phone and vent to my family or friends. Whether they just listen to me, or offer helpful advise, I always hang up feeling a little better.

Huffington Post has an even more extensive list of ways to deal with stress. Out of this list, I like the idea of hanging out with a pet. I know from experience, it’s nearly impossible to be stressed, anxious, or in any kind of bad mood with my German Shepard around.

Dog owners have been shown to be less stressed out — most likely thanks to having a buddy to cuddle.

If you don’t currently have a pet to chill out with, you could always volunteer at a shelter for a few hours, or ask a friend if you can borrow their dog for an afternoon walk. In both cases, you’ll get the stress-reducing benefits from hanging out with an animal, and you’ll be helping out in a way.

I’ve also always been an advocate of relieving stress through exercise. You can read more about it’s stress-reducing benefits here. We all know that exercise is good for us in many ways, but sometimes, we don’t take the time for it. Even if you have to get up an extra hour early, or take time away from surfing the web, you can always find a few minutes in your hectic schedule for some movement. I’ve always found that after a good workout session, my mind is clearer and I have more energy to tackle whatever it is I’ve been putting off. Here are some great ways to use exercise to fight stress.

The most important thing about managing stress is recognizing it and treating it. We can often try to ignore what we’re feeling , but this is not helpful at all. So, when you begin to feel like your world is caving in, try some of these suggestions, and see how much they help.

Photo by RelaxingMusic and republished here under a Creative Commons license. 

Should you go to grad school?

Schoolgirl with books on head

I always assumed that I would be going to grad school after college. Not that it is necessarily required for my major (journalism), but I just though that it would help me land a better paying job quicker. Also, I wanted to delay entering the real world for as long as I could. This year, however, I have really thought it through. I talked to professors and others in the industry, took a look at my finances, and decided that there was only one grad school worth being in debt for. This, of course, changed my plans drastically. Everyone is different and has different reasons for applying to graduate school (or any other continuing education). Chances are, by now, you probably know if you are going to apply to grad school or not; however, if your still struggling with the idea, here are some resources that may help you make the decision.

Forbes has run an article explaining the pro’s and con’s of attending graduate school. What I personally got out of this story is that grad school is worth the investment, but only if you plan on entering a high-paying field such as law or business. For us liberal arts majors, this may not be very helpful. This slideshow helps to break down exactly what careers are worth forking over serious cash for a graduate degree. It compares what you will pay (on average) for grad school, and what you will make (on average) once you graduate.

If you think that grad school is your best option, check out US’s database of the best grad schools. It breaks down graduate programs by major, so you can find a school that will best suit your desired career.

The truth is, you can read as many online articles as you want about attending grad school, but no one really knows whats best for you and your career, except you. My advice would be to talk to some of your professors that were actually in your desired field, and see what path they took to get there. If you’re on the fence, think about the reasons why you want to attend grad school, and consider if you could first get real-world work experience before.

Photo by CollegeDegree 360 and republished here under a Creative Commons license. 

Get talking at a networking event

Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network event - NYC

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about networking, and what better way to network than to attend a networking event? However, if you’re anything like me, the idea of being in a room of strangers and having to strike up random conversations may give you a little anxiety. I’m normally a very shy person, so I need a little help to get the conversation flowing. Luckily, my favorite website Careerealism has recently posted an article listing 18 easy conversation starters for a networking event. This got me thinking, there must be more articles like this one online. So, I searched, and brought some of the best conversation starters to you.

The thing that I liked the most about Careerealism’s suggestions was that they were actually easy. There are more conversation starters courtesy of here. The Daily Muse lists 30 “brilliant” networking conversation starters.

So, all together, you now have over 50 ways to start chatting with others at networking events. Of course, some of these conversation starters tend to overlap. Complimenting people’s clothing, commenting on the food,  trying to find a mutual friend or colleague, and of course, the weather, all seem to be common place.

“It’s so hot (or cold) in here.” Hey, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but the person will either agree or disagree, and pretty soon you’re talking about weather patterns, your best umbrella, and then your career goals.

Regardless of what you say, remember to be yourself, and try not to put too much pressure on every conversation that you have. Sure, networking events are a great place to mingle with people in the industry or even get job leads, but you certainly will not get anything out of it if you don’t talk to anyone.

Photo by Dell Inc and republished here under a Creative Commons license.