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Linked Out: Why first-generation students need to invest in themselves

Jenna Luxon speaks with FirstGens project founder Alaya Holloway about how she set up a social enterprise whilst at university and what first-generation students can do to support their future careers.

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Image Credit: Alaya Holloway

In 2017, UCAS recorded that for the first time in history the number of students in the UK whose parents did not attend university matched those whose parents did. The term ‘first-gen’ is used to refer to students who are one of the first in their family to go university. Despite figures showing that there is an unprecedented number of first-generation students attending university, what these statistics do not show are the systemic disadvantages these students are still likely to face.

First-generation students are far more likely to drop out of university, to suffer psychological issues whilst studying and are less likely to enter professional jobs upon graduation. The elitist nature of higher education in the UK is such that those from differing social and economic backgrounds can struggle to find their place in a system with an ingrained middle-class culture.

Someone who understands the challenges of being a first-gen student all too well is Alaya Holloway, a law student going into her third year at the University of the West of England and founder of the FirstGens project. Alaya was one of the first in her family to go to university. After completing the first year of her course, she began to consider that she couldn’t be the only one experiencing the barriers that come with being a first-gen student.

And so she began six months of research, looking into the data behind first-gen experiences and trying to identify the broader issues that affect first-gen students across the UK. It was through this research that Alaya saw that whilst some Russell Group universities were providing support tailored to their first-gen students there were still many, like herself, being left behind.

Sticking up posters across her campus, Alaya tried to ascertain how many of her peers at university felt the need for a service or community to support first-gen students too. As the email response to the posters came rolling in, Alaya realised she’d identified a service that people wanted to see.

With no previous knowledge of how to set up any kind of business or social enterprise, Alaya took the idea for a service that could truly support every first-generation student across the country and began a step by step process of making it into a reality. With the support of mentors, as well as taking inspiration from the book Self Made by Bianca Miller-Cole and Byron Cole, Alaya succeeded this year in developing FirstGens.

Alongside her voluntary admin team and student ambassadors and funded by a scholarship grant from her university, Alaya was able to dedicate her summer to working on the project. She developed FirstGens as a project that aims to boost social mobility and increase the number of first-gen students entering professional roles by understanding the complexity of first-gen students’ varying experiences and creating a community of support as well as providing practical services.

FirstGens works to support first-gen students through a broad range of methods. Firstly, Alaya and her team offer bespoke workshops tailored to first-gen issues that universities can invest in. Paired alongside these workshops is access to digital materials. Alaya uses her own experiences to create resources, for example using the emails she has sent to law firms in the past to create templates for others to use.

FirstGens also runs a mentorship programme, offers a bursary currently worth £10,000 and hopes in the future to develop national social mobility conferences where first-gen students can go to listen to speakers and connect with employers.

Some of the major issues that first-gen students face at university are self-confidence and identity. Entering into the university culture can be hugely intimidating and result in some feeling a sense of imposter syndrome. A feeling that then translates into finding it harder to network, to ask for help and put yourself forward for opportunities.

With the prospect of university life and professional life heading increasingly online, Alaya recommends that now more than ever it is important for students to be networking and building professional profiles online. ‘Every single student should have LinkedIn,’ says Alaya, ‘LinkedIn is a tool that young people definitely don’t tap into enough’.

As well as a great way to gain employment, LinkedIn also allows you to network and can function as an online CV. Although it may feel intimidating to begin with, Alaya recommends getting a LinkedIn account set up and then using it regularly as a great way to build confidence in your career path. ‘There is no point having a LinkedIn profile if you don’t use it. Upload a profile picture and make sure you keep your profile up to date with what you are doing,’ says Alaya.

Having a professional profile online as well as being competent with online collaboration are skills Alaya sees as only becoming more important in the future. With a fragile graduate labour market post-COVID-19, first-gen graduates should be working harder than ever to build their network and directly approach professionals. ‘People hire people that they know and trust’ says Alaya, so getting your name out there is crucial.

Alaya also believes in thinking long-term. Even if you don’t have any idea what you want to do when you graduate, it is never too early to start working to become your best self and gain skills and experience. : ‘You need to see university as an investment in yourself.’ Alaya recommends trying to gain as much work experience and volunteering as you can, as skills are transferable; even a weekend job at a café can be used to show experience in a fast-paced environment or with customer interaction.

Students and particularly graduates are often represented as being pitted against one another in competition for the small number of jobs available to them. Alaya and the FirstGens project are a refreshing break from this rhetoric, sharing what they know with others rather than competing.

The term ‘career advice’ has always scared me as I generally take a more happy-go-lucky approach to my future employment plans. I tell myself that my lack of career planning stems from not wanting to wish my life away, and whilst that is in part true, perhaps it also has a little more to do with fear than I’d like to admit.

As a first-gen student myself, I can relate to the challenges Alaya talks about. In reality, I know very little about my career options; no one in my family would have a clue how to use LinkedIn, and ‘networking’ feels more like fraternising with the enemy than reaching out to a future employer. But the statement ‘university is an investment’ is very true, and instead of shying away, first-gen students should be working to make this investment count, something Alaya and the FirstGens project perfectly demonstrate.

*To get involved in the FirstGens project or find out more visit *https://www.firstgens.co.uk/or @first_gens_ on Instagram

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