First-gen students pack inaugural career conference

Saturday was a first for 150 first-generation college students at Berkeley.

At the First-Generation Career Conference, a first-ever professional development initiative for Berkeley students who will be the first in their families to earn a four-year degree, they took up every seat. The free conference – the only one of its kind in the 10-campus UC system – took just three days to fill after it was advertised.

Participants learned how to search for jobs, write winning resumes, network, negotiate job offers and salaries, locate internships and identify and celebrate their strengths as first-generation students.

Students asked questions, shared stories and learned career-building skills from alumni and staff at the inaugural, all-day conference. (UC Berkeley photos by Hulda Nelson)

A highlight of the event was the students’ chance to interact with employers and alumni who also were the first college graduates in their families and now represent companies including Google, IBM, Microsoft, Amazon, General Electric and Yelp.

“I see this conference as having the potential to grow into an event for the entire UC system, because there is such demand for it,” said 2015 Berkeley graduate Lonjino Lazcano, a consultant at Deloitte, a multinational professional services firm. “Students are hungry to be in an environment where people understand where they’re coming from, to be in a room where it’s safe to say, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’”

The first in his own family to attend college, Lazcano was a presenter at the conference, which was co-sponsored by Berkeley’s SAGE (Student Achievement Guided by Experience) Scholars Program, the UC Berkeley Career Center and the Centers for Educational Excellence and Equity. It was funded by the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Services and Fees.

Biology major and soon-to-be-graduate Erika Quinteros poses with daughter Jasmine at the event.

“A Berkeley degree is only part of what our graduates need to get ahead. They need career-building skills, but many first-generation students don’t have people in their families who can teach them,” said Lilly Omid, director of SAGE, which provides career development and leadership training to undergraduates from low-income backgrounds.

Since about a quarter of Berkeley’s entering freshmen and nearly 45 percent of its transfer students are first-generation college students, Omid coordinated with the Career Center to create a conference to reach beyond the SAGE scholars to an even wider audience.

“We have the Career Center here at Berkeley, but often students who are first-generation don’t have the confidence or connections to use those resources,” said SAGE scholar Dylan Bush, a pre-med and first-generation student at Berkeley who helped lead a panel discussion.

A Google staffer was among the many representatives from top companies eager to meet first-generation students about their career options.

“There are lots of employers who come through the Career Center,” added Brian Guerrero, senior associate director at the Career Center, “and we don’t want our first-generation students to lose the opportunity to meet them because they don’t know what to do.”

Participants began the day hearing personal stories and experiences from Bush and other current first-generation students at Berkeley. The panelists shared common concerns about school, family, money and self-image. Morning and afternoon skill-building workshops followed.

“The conference allowed students to learn and build and practice their skills together,” said Omid. “With networking, for example, they learned that your network is everybody you know, and that your most important contact could be the person you sit next to in class. It’s important to make connections wherever you go.”

Students gather around Dorothy Ngutter to hear about jobs at the State Department.

As he aims for a job in medicine, Bush said he’s been grateful as a SAGE scholar for opportunities to meet and intern with individuals in the sciences who once were first-generation college students. “It lets me see others like me who got to the top,” he said.

Guerrero said he hopes the campus “will say this conference is something we need to invest in,” and that alumni and campus business partners will want to support it, too.

“A lot of campuses don’t think about first-generation students and their professional development,” he added. “We’re glad to be at the forefront of that topic here at Berkeley.”