By Scott B. Winton and Flory Yazmin Ore
Declaring “this is no time to be on the sidelines,” President Joe Biden called on America’s young generation to engage in public service during his commencement speech at the University of Delaware, May 28. Biden described growing up in humble surroundings and pursuing a life of public service after graduating from college. The president is a self-declared first-generation (FirstGen) college student and professional, meaning he is the first in his immediate family to receive a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university.
“We have a solemn duty to keep the flame of liberty burning,” said Biden. “This is not about blue and red, rural and urban. It’s about America. The right to govern ourselves. The right to determine our own destinies, to overcome division and despair, and to meet the challenges of our time with grit and, maybe equally important, with some grace. To press ahead determined, resolved, and full of hope.”
This year, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion launched the Department of State’s first-ever Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) Strategic Plan. The plan identifies actions that will be taken between FY 2022 and FY 2026 to advance and remove any potential barriers to DEIA in the workforce, including for FirstGens and individuals from economically challenged backgrounds.
Being the first in your family to move forward professionally and paving the way for future generations is no easy task. At the college level, FirstGens face unique challenges. According to the Brookings Institution, FirstGen students tend to come from lower-income families (average family income of $58,000) than do non-FirstGen students (average family income of $120,000). Relatedly, economic barriers may inhibit their enrollment or ability to thrive at a college or university. Once enrolled, FirstGens frequently work through college and take on significant debt while sometimes balancing the financial needs of their immediate family with college coursework.
Other FirstGens may face social barriers, which are frequently unseen and not often discussed. Entering university life, surrounded by a community of more socioeconomically privileged—and academically prepared—peers can make FirstGen students feel out of place and sometimes unwanted.
FirstGen Management Analyst M. Lysaght described her personal experience that she sometimes felt there was no place for her in any one community.
“I learned to navigate ambiguous environments growing up biracial, and in doing so, empowered myself to excel as a FirstGen at a university no one dreamed I could attend,” said Lysaght. “I approached joining the federal workforce in a similar way—with grit and determination needed to propel me through moments of uncertainty and a lack of a sense of belonging.”
The guilt placed on FirstGens for leaving their family and hometown for college is sometimes too much to bear for some. According to an article from the Clay Center for Young Health Minds, many FirstGens experience guilt, shame, and embarrassment due to a feeling that they are rejecting their past and community while also feeling like “imposters” on campus.
Although FirstGens may arrive on campus because of educational potential, their sometimes-limited exposure to professional vocabulary, parent and mentor support, and professional networks can separate them from their more privileged peers, according to an article by the Atlantic. These discrepancies at the start of college can put FirstGens at a disadvantage that persists throughout college and into their professional lives.
Overcoming disadvantages takes resilience and becomes a unique experience that makes FirstGen public servants well-suited for the complex and diverse challenges awaiting them in their careers. They often exemplify the vital professional attributes of empathy, compassion, understanding and resourcefulness, especially when serving America’s diverse population. Once in a profession, however, FirstGens sometimes encounter the same economic and social barriers that they experienced during their college years, finding relatively few colleagues with similar experiences.
FirstGen Consular Fellow Miyaunna Vásquez Sharree knows this experience well. She knew she had to build a “village” of experienced mentors, like-minded peers, and family members to develop a pathway for success in college.
“This disciplined approach led me to the State Department, where I discovered I would again need to create a village to learn the ins and outs of federal service, and also to build strategies for developing opportunities and pathways for others,” said Vásquez Sharree.
FirstGens come from all over the United States, including urban and rural areas. According to the Pell Institute’s Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States, there are approximately 16.3 million undergraduates attending degree-granting institutions in the United States. Within this population, an estimated 9.1 million students are FirstGen students, and 46% of these students identify as white, 25% identify as Hispanic, 18% as Black, 6% as Asian. About 1% identify as American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander.
The federal government has taken steps to cultivate a workforce that draws from all sectors of American society since the president signed Executive Order 14035 on DEIA in the federal workforce. The executive order aims to strengthen the federal government’s “ability to recruit, hire, develop, promote, and retain our nation’s talent and remove barriers to equal opportunity.” This includes supporting federal FirstGens.
By sharing their stories, federal FirstGens—especially mid-level and senior-level employees—can help other FirstGens within the Department. FirstGens openly sharing their experiences has the potential to reduce social stigmas facing Americans dealing with economic hardship and learning loss for school-aged children. While it is difficult for some FirstGens to speak about the challenges associated with their background, their stories can humanize individuals from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and clarify paths to social mobility within the federal government and beyond.
To this end, a cadre of Department employees have embarked on a process to launch an employee organization that will provide professional networking, mentorship, support, and advocacy for employees with a shared socioeconomic experience. Called FirstGens@State, the organization encourages employees from all backgrounds to participate. If successful, this employee organization would be the first to prioritize the advancement of socioeconomic diversity and inclusion within the Department.
Nov. 8 marks National First-Generation Celebration Day, recognizing the unique challenges faced by, and successes achieved by, FirstGens across the Department, foreign missions, and federal government.
Scott B. Winton is the political & regional team lead at Embassy Kingston and Flory Yazmin Ore is a consular officer at Embassy Ankara.