Success Spotlight: Helping First Gens Learn to Earn

April 15, 2014

Last summer, Irwin Tejeda landed an internship with Morgan Stanley.  “As a first-generation college student, I realize that many people suffer from financial illiteracy, living paycheck to paycheck, and so my goal is to close that gap,” he says.

VIDEO: Tejeda and other SEO Scholars share their stories.

The University of Michigan senior credits the nonprofit organization SEO Scholars for his success: “In high school, I was given two SEO mentors. …  And now in college, SEO gives me the training and guidance to take ownership, network and go after internships.” 

SEO Scholars—the SEO stands for Sponsors for Educational Opportunity—operates in New York City and San Francisco and focuses on helping low-income public high school students get to and through college. The organization begins working with students in the ninth grade and continues to support them through college graduation and beyond. 

During college, program participants receive ongoing, one-on-one academic, personal and career support.  This intensive advising results in impressive graduation rates: 95 percent graduate within six years and 80 percent graduate in four.

First to Finish College spoke with Ays Necioglu, Director of SEO Scholars, College, to learn how she and her colleagues help students successfully transition from college to careers.

The staff of SEO Scholars very actively monitors the academic experience students are having, especially in their freshmen and sophomore years. 

“We don’t wait for GPAs,” Ays explains.  “We talk to students all through college: in person, on email, via Facebook.  We know their test scores, how they are doing on quizzes, if they are going to class, if they are studying.” 

Ays says she and her colleagues “have a checklist of things [they] look for” to identify if a student is struggling. She says, “If a student is doing everything we suggest and they still aren’t doing well, then there’s a mismatch with what they are studying and their abilities.”  In such cases, SEO Scholars staff work with a student to reassess which courses and majors may best help them to reach their goals.

Some first-gen students find themselves in the situation of having parents and families push for a certain career path—to become a doctor or engineer, for example—even if the student does not have the skills for it. SEO Scholars sees this as a red flag.  “What if a student graduates with one of these majors but has a low GPA or doesn’t get into med school or get an engineering job?” asks Ays.  “That low GPA may hurt them no matter what career path they pursue.”

To avoid such outcomes, SEO Scholars tries to facilitate conversations between the family and the student, to help them explore options that are more likely to lead to a student’s success and long-term happiness. Ays says these conversations are very delicate. “Families are very big forces in students’ lives. … In many cases, [they] have sacrificed much for kids to go to college,” Ays explains. Anything SEO Scholars staff say here “has to be done in a very sensitive, conversational way.”

Not That Much Time

Ays and her staff are very conscious that the clock is always ticking for their college students.  “We have four years to get them into careers. We don’t have that much time,“ she says.

“We have four years to get them into careers. We don’t have that much time.”

SEO Scholars takes advantage of school breaks to bring its college students together for daylong events that are focused on developing the skills needed to succeed professionally.  Through workshops, large groups and one-on-one conversations, SEO Scholars teaches students to assess their skills and personality traits and match them to career options. SEO Scholars also uses a variety of formats to support students’ career exposure and provide opportunities to meet professionals from many fields.

One of the most powerful tools the organization uses is its “speed-networking” events. Modeled after speed-dating, SEO Scholars brings professionals together with college students for rapid-fire conservations. Students get a book of bios ahead of time. They have precious few minutes to talk to a set number of professionals in the room, introducing themselves, asking whatever they like, and also answering questions. In its most recent speed-networking event in January, 75 professionals connected to more than 125 students. 

SEO Scholars’ speed-networking format forces students to hone their personal 30-second pitch, something Ays sees as absolutely crucial to their professional success. Higher income students are “naturally networking at a young age,” she explains. For SEO Scholars’ students, all of whom come from low-income backgrounds, “the first time many of them interact with wealthy individuals or professionals is when they get to college.”

Ays makes the point that “talking about yourself with confidence, sounding genuine, and communicating you belong there” are keys to demonstrating the confidence that will get you a job. Ays says her students “must practice [such skills] again and again and again.” But this practice pays off.  “Most of our students are very self-conscious when they start. But over time they learn to nail it. And this makes a huge difference in their ability to get jobs and succeed in them.”

Learning to Earn — in a Balanced Way

The median family income of New York City students in SEO Scholars is $21,819, just below the 2014 poverty threshold of $23,850. Ays and her staff know that for students from poor families to end their own cycle of poverty, they need to enter into a professional job. 

Our students “don’t necessarily have the luxury to do what they love,” explains Ays. SEO Scholars does not discourage students from following their dreams. Rather, it helps them think more creatively and pragmatically about their aims, both financial and otherwise. 

Our students ‘don’t necessarily have the luxury to do what they love.’”

“We try to help students understand that they have to start somewhere, that their first job is a path, not a destination.”  Where students start building their futures and which goals they set depend on a mix of things. Their interests, abilities and grades come into play, as does their family dynamic.  But accurately assessing one's prospects for a given career—and understanding the financial impact of certain career choices—are equally important.

Many first generation and low-income students have a strong desire to give back by going into public service. While SEO Scholars doesn’t discourage a student from taking a social work position paying $20,000 a year, for example, staff do suggest that students think hard about alternative ways to help others.

The organization asks students to consider opportunities to do public service that are prestigious and will lead to connections, help with grad school applications or provide valuable leadership experience.

Ays and her staff also tell students not to shy away from the possibility of getting “a job where they can make a lot of money and volunteer and maybe one day start their own nonprofit.”

Of course, Ays and her staff are very clear with students that there’s an important balance to be struck. They work hard to help students avoid the trap of being solely financially motivated and ending up in a job where they can’t perform.

Ays says she and her staff tell students very explicitly, “You can’t take a job that you hate or that you are not good at. The worst thing you can do is to pursue something about which you are not passionate or for which you do not have the skills.” 

The ultimate question that Ays and her colleagues focus on with students is “How can you find something that is a good fit for your goals (financial or otherwise) and make it meaningful?”

WATCH: students share their stories during the SEO Scholars 50th Anniversary event:


Jen W
Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a national policy organization, and the co-founder of First to Finish College, a joint project of Demos and SparkAction. She is a first-generation college graduate with a B.S. from Cornell University and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. FTFC logo


This blog is part of the First to Finish College blog project, produced jointly by Demos and SparkAction.

Jennifer Wheary