Side doors and unspoken rules are the key to success, and mentors can help first-gen students find them


College can change a young person’s life trajectory.

This is something I say often, because the data backs me up. As Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce reported, college graduates will earn 75% more over their lifetime than those with only a college degree. secondary studies.

And when you’re the first in your family to go to college, a bachelor’s degree can transform not only your life but your family’s trajectory as well. At Pace University, where about 40% of every incoming class is made up of first-generation students, about one-third of all students are eligible for federal Pell grants, which means their families have an annual income no more than $60,000. For our Class of 2021, the average starting salary for a Pace Bachelor graduate was $63,397. In other words, that college degree can launch a low-income family into the middle class.

That’s why it’s so crucial to ensure that all students—especially those from underrepresented communities, those from low-income families, and those who are the first in their families to attend college—not only s enroll in a college or university, but persist in graduating and embarking on a successful career.

But it’s not always easy, especially when no one in your family has been down that road before.

As a former first-generation student named Gorick Ng written in his recent book, The unspoken rules, there are “certain ways of doing things” that people “expect but don’t explain”. These unspoken rules, writes Ng, “are passed down from parent to child and mentor to mentee, creating an uneven playing field between insiders and outsiders.”

The child of a single mother who worked in a sewing machine factory and then took care of children, Ng was an outsider when he successfully applied and enrolled at Harvard. He was still an underdog when he started working as a management consultant. He knew that to move forward he had to understand what the initiates understood, and so he started a project to understand it. He spoke to hundreds of successful professionals to ask them what mistakes people make in their careers, what they would do differently, and what separates the best from the mediocre. The result is his book and his new calling to help first-generation college students get ahead.

“When I got to Harvard, I realized that people whose parents were doctors, lawyers, executives, navigated the system in a very different way than I did,” he told me when we recently caught up with Zoom. Hard work, he realized, is not enough. It’s a baseline. “You need the ability to get things done and do them well, you need to sell yourself and your ideas, and you also need to know how to make the system work.”

Insiders — people whose parents and families have gone to college, developed professional careers — know how to make the system work. First-generation students, students from marginalized communities, may not.

Ng’s book contains lots of clever ideas and strategies on how to get ahead at work, on understanding that being competent is not enough. “For every front door, there’s a side door,” he told me. “For every advertised opportunity, there is an unadvertised opportunity. And for every spoken rule, there is an unspoken rule. The real key to success is knowing those side doors, those unheralded opportunities, and those unspoken rules.

So how can a first-generation student learn all of this, whether in college or in their career?

The key, according to Ng, is mentorship. Find someone who’s been in your shoes before, he says, and ask them for advice on how to follow the path.

I have long been a big advocate for mentoring. I think mentors are essential to academic and professional success. And I think mentoring has real benefits for mentors as well as mentees. But I fear that it may be difficult for some students, and especially first-generation students, to find valuable mentors with whom they can identify.

“When it comes to finding mentors, it’s actually easier than we think,” Ng said. “I think of mentors as people who know what you don’t know but should know,” he said. And that means there are plenty of people out there who can serve as mentors. All kinds of relationships can be used to turn strangers into acquaintances, acquaintances into allies, and a few select allies into mentors. “Giving yourself credit for people you already know is a first step,” Ng said.

You can often connect better with people who have shared similar life experiences. Coming from the same city, studying the same field, sharing an interest in the same music, the same film, the same hobby or the same subject, all of these can form the bonds that build relationships. And when you define mentors as people who can help you know things you don’t yet know, every one of those relationships can turn into mentorship.

As educators and parents, we can help turn strangers into insiders not only by sharing our own knowledge, but also by ensuring that the students and young professionals we interact with know that they need to know these doors. laterals and these unspoken rules. Even when we don’t have the specific knowledge they will need, we can make a real difference by making sure they understand the knowledge is there and they can be found, with the right mentors.

This is perhaps the biggest unspoken rule: you can always find people to help you, and you just have to search to find them. We owe it to all of our students to make sure they know this.

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