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First-Generation College Students Need Internship Guidance

A group of college students are talking to each other.

​Jim Mourey was a first-generation student in 2004, studying marketing and international business at Washington University in St. Louis. As a rising senior, he wasn't sure how to land an internship.

"I didn't know how the game was played," recalled Mourey, who is now an associate professor of marketing at DePaul University in Chicago with a doctoral degree in marketing. He also is a professor for, which offers online university-level courses whose semester credits are transferrable to other colleges and universities, subject to those institutions' review and approval. 

Mourey's internship break came through his involvement as student representative of the college's career center. A staff member who knew Mourey through the career center recommended he apply to her friend's marketing company, which was seeking interns.

"I was lucky I had a lot of people looking out for me," said Mourey, whose internship led to a full-time marketing job when he graduated.

Lesson learned: Opportunities—especially for young adults whose parents haven't gone to college—come through relationships. It's something he said he tries to impress upon his students, who range from undergraduates to those working on a master's degree or doctorate in business administration.

"You never know who you're going to meet," Mourey said, noting that "Batman" actor Michael Keaton was at his graduation because Keaton's son was matriculating that day.

Mourey didn't get to meet Keaton, but he knew his son, who played in a band that performed at campus events and shows Mourey helped produce.

"So many students don't use the resources that are provided for them. They don't reach out," he observed. That includes being aware of friends' and family members' connections who could be potential networking sources.                                                                                                               

[SHRM members-only resource: Student & Emerging Professional Resources 

First-Generation College Students

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) defines first-generation college students as those whose parents do not hold a bachelor's degree.

This group of students is more racially and ethnically diverse than non-first-generation students, although NACE found that a majority of first-generation college students are white (49 percent). The second-largest population is Hispanic (27 percent), followed by a lesser number of other demographic groups.

"Landing internships and jobs is essential but often daunting for first-generation students," noted Professor Erin Kimura-Walsh in a blog post for the Center for First-Generation Student Success at Santa Clara University in California.

She is the director of the school's LEAD Scholars Program, which provides academic and vocational development opportunities, advice, peer mentoring, courses, programs and support networks. 

Family members and friends of first-generation students are less likely to be in professional careers and, by extension, are less likely to have the professional networks that students can draw upon, she explained.

"I saw these challenges firsthand as our first-generation college participants struggled to find internships and jobs," Kimura-Walsh noted.

These students may want to look for programs such as the LEAD Scholars Program and Year Up, a free job-training program that hosts interns for six months twice yearly. Angie Herrera, SHRM-CP, senior HR partner representative at United Airlines in Chicago, volunteers with Year Up.

"The student learners are often the first in their families to obtain corporate experience, and our goal is to create 80 percent conversion to full-time corporate employment before their internship ends," she told SHRM Online earlier this year.

How to Land Internships

SHRM Online compiled the following tips for students unfamiliar with how to navigate the internship experience.

Start looking for internships early in your college career. "I encourage my students to start looking the summer after their freshman year; it's that competitive," Mourey said.

He also recommended students conduct an informational interview—such as talking with college alumni or contacting a particular company—to learn about an organization before applying for an internship.

"It's so easy now with social media," he said. 

Understand what the internship is and what it isn't. Mourey's goal was to turn his internship into a full-time job offer, and he succeeded.

"But sometimes doing an internship allows you to see what you like and don't like about a career path. It's OK to get to your internship [and realize], 'It's not for me.' … You can develop some transferrable skills that apply to another job that is a better fit," he said.

It's also a time to discover career paths within a job family. Marketing, for example, can include research, public relations and brand management.

Highlight activities on your resume that showcase workplace skills. Students may not have work experience, but likely their clubs or entrepreneurial efforts use skills transferrable to the workplace, said Austin J. Franklin, CEO and co-founder of Good-Natured Life, an adult and youth development company based in Jacksonville, Fla.

"Many students, especially during the pandemic, have entered the entrepreneurial space, and this is something they could include" on their resumes, he said. Franklin founded his company in 2015 as a 20-year-old college junior.

They also may have volunteer or leadership experience or have their own podcasts or YouTube channels that they can highlight.

Franklin encourages students to include a personal motto or statement before listing their education and extracurricular activities "so people get a snapshot of who you are." And it's important that prospective interns have a sense of the organization where they're applying.

"There are some businesses that are shirt-and-tie, and there are other companies that [have] a more relaxed environment," he said.

Learn from the interview. "Students need to ask different questions that could give greater insight [into the organization]," Franklin advised.

That includes asking about the organization's expectations, who the student will report to, the organization's primary goal for the internship and if there is an opportunity for full-time employment upon successful completion of the internship.

A successful experience, he said, "starts with understanding why you want to do this internship."

Other SHRM resources:

Daniel Weissland: From Audi Intern to Company PresidentSHRM Online, May 2022

Internships Open Doors to Jobs, Workplace Expectations, SHRM Online, April 2022

EPAC Members Offer Internship Advice, SHRM Online, April 2022

Looking for an Internship? Consider These Factors First, SHRM Online, March 2022

Study Finds Students Are Confused About How to Prepare for Their Careers, SHRM Online, March 2022

How Does Your Company Support 'First-Generation Professionals'? SHRM Online, January 2022


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