Advice from one first-generation college student to others who are seeking internships and entry-level jobs

Advice from one first-generation college student to others who are seeking internships and entry-level jobs was originally published on College Recruiter.

We recently shared some advice for first-generation college students searching for internships and recent graduates hunting for entry-level jobs. I was thrilled to then hear from one who had some really, really good advice for other first-generation students.

Diana Cleinmark is an account supervisor for Antenna, a strategic communications and results-driven integrated marketing agency that partners with innovative B2B companies to solve meaningful global challenges. Diana was a first-generation college student. She applied to more than 100 internships when she was a college sophomore. All of that work only led to a handful of phone interviews but a job offer. She ended up successfully completing four internships before graduation and now is on the other side of the interview desk and has even spoken at universities to discuss her experience and connect with soon-to-be graduates.

Diana was so gracious that I felt she would be receptive to me asking if she would take some time to answer some questions that I had about how first-generation students should job hunt. She was. Below are those questions and answers:

Q: Did family members make sacrifices that you’d feel comfortable discussing to help you qualify, get into, and complete college? I see that you not only went to college but to a very good university, DePaul, and then also got a Master’s. Your family must be incredibly proud of you, and you must be incredibly grateful to them if they helped you along the way.

My parents sacrificed time learning the process, attending financial aid workshops with me, talking to my counselors about the application process and making sure we used our resources. With each of the college info sessions I was able to secure waivers for the application fee for most except DePaul University. My dad was happy to provide the financial support for that application because he knew it was one of the best schools I was applying to. Once I got my acceptances, I had a slew of private and public universities to choose from as well as their associated financial aid packages.

Most of my teachers recommended public school for the cost, and while I agreed with them, my dad was the one who didn’t let me play into the ‘fear’ of costs for college. We would make it work, he said. He has always been determined to lift me and my sisters up no matter what the cost was to him. He does a laborious job, so it did mean more hours on his feet, more exhaustion, less time for himself. But he wanted to afford us every opportunity he didn’t have. I watched this documentary on Netflix about “operation varsity blues” and someone said something like – parents treat their child’s acceptance to college like their own. My dad dreamed of going to school himself, but got married young, had me, and needed to find stability. I remember when I was in middle school, learning how to type and he bought me a computer “game” to practice typing. One day, I went to the family computer and when I clicked open the drive, the CD was in there, and he was the last one to use the computer. In that moment I realized he was learning to type, too. A lot of moments like this remind me how fortunate I am to have had the challenges and learning curve – not everyone can truly grasp the privilege that it is to have access to higher education.

I was afraid of the costs, of moving to the city after going to a relatively small high school and the pressure I felt to be successful. But my dad always reminded me that the only person stopping me in pursuing my dreams, is me. When I begged him to support my decision in choosing the college 15 minutes from my mom’s house, he told me that he wouldn’t support me staying in my comfort zone. I think deep down, I knew he was right. I am very grateful for both of my parents for providing me with their time as well as the emotional and financial sacrifices they made.

Advice for first-generation college students who may not have English-speaking parents: If your parents aren’t able to help or can’t learn the process, use your high school’s resources and tap into people who may be willing to help. I asked my friend’s parents or emailed around to find resources if I wasn’t sure. Also, ask your friends. I’ve helped friends figure out the process alongside them. It’s hard to ask, but it’s worth it.

Q: Are there anecdotes you can provide that will help the readers understand the value of your college and Master’s degrees to you, maybe in terms of the work that you’re able to do?

I was majoring in Communications and Media, which was a broad program. I knew that there were a lot of other students in my program, in addition to the many other students in the College of Communications. I wanted to stand out and I needed to have an elevator speech where it was clear that I knew what I wanted.

I started out as an “IT Intern” at Hospira (now Pfizer) after completing my second year of undergrad. I did very little in that role pertaining to health, but as a pharmaceutical company, I was adjacent to health-related content. It was the only offer I had after applying to 100+ opportunities. It took one “yes” to start off the dominos off my career, and I’ll forever be grateful to Liz Valdes for taking a chance on me. It’s always hardest to secure the first one.  I was probably the youngest intern, most of the others were rising seniors. This made sense, since many of my classmates were confused as to why I started interning early. Our program required only one internship, for class credit, and most people were determined to get the requirement and that’s it.

While at Hospira, I toured their product museum (for lack of better term) which walked through every product they had, in an artifact type of way. Liz helped me set up time to shadow the people in the corporate communications department and I decided that health was going to be my specialty. I was thankfully, extended the internship from the summer into the school year, and during that time, I took an introductory course in health communication, which was taught by the head of the health communications program at DePaul. After going through the coursework, I knew that I found my passion.

I didn’t want to be thrown into an internship that didn’t align with health in some way, so I continued to pursue internships that aligned with health to build out my resume. After Hospira, I went to Pfizer and lived in Connecticut for the summer, interning at the R&D headquarters. After, I interned at CommunityHealth, the nation’s largest free clinic, then Baxalta (now Shire), then Horizon Therapeutics. When I was ever seeking the next internship, I always mentioned that I intended to complete the master’s program. Whether that helped me secure the opportunities or not is up to the imagination, but I think it set me a part in terms of interns who were seeking any opportunity versus making sure they knew I was someone who had an interest in the industry.

When we learned about the 4+1 program at DePaul, I was a freshman. I knew I needed to confirm I was interested by my sophomore year of college. At the beginning of my junior year, I needed to apply to the program and commit – in May of my junior year, I needed to add graduate classes to my senior year schedule. All that to say – I decided what was important to me early on, when most of my friends couldn’t wait to graduate and be done, forever.

My master’s degree didn’t serve me right away in the conventional sense – I got my job at Edelman, one of the top PR firms new grads pretty much dream of, without anyone mentioning my master’s degree. I wasn’t smarter than my peers. I was actually older than the other entry-level employees because I spent my year after graduating undergrad as an intern at Horizon. But, now that I’m 5 years into my career, I am immensely grateful that I have my master’s degree. It serves me now, at a smaller agency where we have a breadth of projects and need to read clinical research, advise clients on their materials and as I develop materials for clinicians and medical experts to read. With that, I don’t think a master’s degree is necessary to succeed in communications, PR and marketing. I do think it’s beneficial if you make it valuable for yourself. Nothing we attain is going to be valuable – the value comes from our perspective and adding our ‘spin’ to the education we receive.

Q: Have others in your family followed in your footsteps, perhaps with your encouragement? If you had to do it again, what would you do differently?

My sister is going to graduate college next month, and as much as she didn’t want to follow in my footsteps, I advised her, like me, to start internships early. She was reluctant, but we actually found her first internship through an e-newsletter at our local waterpark (which happens to be the largest in Illinois). She had just finished her sophomore year of college, and funny enough, was a trained lifeguard. I told her the internship at the waterpark, which focused in digital marketing, would be a great first “domino” and her lifeguard certification showed that she was multifaceted for the role. She will graduate with 3 internships under her belt and an array of other accolades because she exceeded me in joining on-campus organizations and pursuing leadership positions. We laugh as I call her my protégé, but she really just needed to see my footsteps to have the confidence in seeing what was possible for her.

If I had to do it again, I would be more confident in myself. I would’ve applied to more opportunities I didn’t feel qualified for. I would have started paying the interest on my loans, while I was in school, too.

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