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285 South Youth Voices: How internships + career prep can make a difference.
Ayoko Kodjovi talks about the challenges facing first generation immigrant college students and where to reach out for support.
By Ayoko Kodjovi, 285 South Contributor and Intern
I used to think that if I got a college degree, I’d get a job and a good-paying one at that.
I’m a first-generation college student from an immigrant background and I applied to college with that end goal at the forefront of my mind. Two years into college, I’m finding that a well paying job isn’t guaranteed by a degree alone.
Inside Higher Ed reports that 41 percent of college graduates were unemployed or working in a job that does not require a bachelor's degree in 2020. Employment for 20 to 24-year-olds rose just 6% in May 2021, compared to 12% in May 2019. Not only that, millions of young graduates are saddled with debt (and waiting with bated breath to see if the Biden Administration will forgive student loans), which can take decades to pay off.
For those of us with the double minority status of being first-generation college students and from immigrant backgrounds - the challenge of getting on that path to a well paying job - can be even greater.
One reason for that is we don’t have the same connections or infrastructure around us that 2nd or 3rd generation college students might have. For instance, a crucial part of the path to a well paying job is securing internships, getting mentors, and learning to write a cover letter - also known as “career prep.” Students who’ve engaged in at least one paid internship experience have higher starting salaries, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
But not everyone knows about these internships, where to find them, or how to apply. And for those of us with double minority status - it can be even harder to get connected. When you are the first to do anything, especially to obtain higher education or any education at all, you are likely to encounter obstacles that could otherwise be avoided with guidance from others with more knowledge and experienced academic and career backgrounds. This can be anything from having a strong network that helps you to land your dream job to having the parental and financial support needed to attend college and even learn about career prep opportunities.
For me, I struggled with the standardized test portion of the college application process. We couldn’t afford test prep classes and my parents simply could not understand why we were paying so much money to test. I always had to think about my family’s financial situation and what we could manage.
Another obstacle: time. Sometimes you just don’t have the time to search for career prep opportunities. Oftentimes, those in underrepresented groups find themselves struggling to navigate and adapt to American society in the midst of taking care of family responsibilities as opposed to focusing on their education and future. This was the case for me when I found myself struggling to balance challenging college classes, a part-time job, and being expected to look after my younger siblings.
Last year, I happened to see a social media post from someone who had done a program called Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT). It’s a national nonprofit that runs a program that helps students from underrepresented communities to land internships and prepare them for success in their early careers. Another program, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, recruits and trains high achieving Black, Latinx, and Native American college students for challenging summer internships that lead to well paid full-time jobs.
I applied to participate in both SEO and MLT programs and thankfully, was selected. I now regularly meet with a mentor and we build on different skill sets - everything from proficiency in Microsoft Excel to writing a resume or cover letter. I also have the chance to virtually meet a cohort of other fellows once a month (many of whom are also double minorities)- and I’m hopeful this is the beginning of a lifelong alumni network.
This summer I’m interning at the American Express headquarters in Manhattan - an opportunity that I secured through MLT. I have come to understand that programs like MLT help change the reality we are taught to accept as first-generation immigrant students in American society, the reality that things have to be twice as hard for us to achieve or that we do not have access to the same resources as others from a higher social class and thus, I hope that others like me are equally as optimistic for a better future.
Learn more about these organizations and how to apply.