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Finding Career Success as a First-Generation College Student

Kamusta, my name is Adrian Suarez. I was born and raised in the Philippines and am an international first-generation student at Lehigh University pursuing a Masters of Science in Business Analytics with a concentration in Marketing Analytics. During my undergraduate studies at Lehigh, I was an Eckardt Scholar studying Economics, Theater, and Global Studies, and I won the Williams and Amaranth prizes for my creative and critical writing. I am also proud to be one of the “founding fathers” and the first Chief Executive Officer of the Asian Business Club with over 80 active members, and the founder of a local small business called Global Chauffeur Services.

I plan to pursue a career and ultimately lead my own firms in management consulting, real estate, marketing/advertising, and Philippine tourism. During my time at Lehigh I have participated in a plethora of global experiences that have provided me with the knowledge and skills I need to achieve this goal, including serving as a United Nations Youth Representative for the Unitarian Universalists Association at the UN Headquarters in New York; a public health intern in Kisumu County, Kenya; a consultant for organic farming in Germany; a data analyst for the arts & culture of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania; a Global Citizen student in New Delhi, India; and, a sustainability researcher in my hometown of Manila, Philippines.

As I reflect on my experiences and plan my next steps moving forward, I think it’s important to recognize that I would not be where I am today without the drive and motivation that I gained from my identity as an international first-generation college student coming from a low-income background in a developing country like the Philippines. My formative years in the gritty streets of Mandaluyong taught me the value of having an internal locus of control. I knew at an early age that I was responsible for bringing myself and my family out of the depressed neighborhood of Barangay Old Zaniga. Being in daily proximity with absolute poverty back home raised the stakes for my academic and professional decisions in college. It made these four years consequential to my financial future and the financial stability of my widowed mother who has raised me by herself for over ten years. And I think this sense of responsibility to one’s self and one’s family is a common theme for most first-generation students.

#1 Learn How to Compete

If you are first-generation and come from a low-income background, chances are your school prior to arriving at Lehigh did not offer the same opportunities as international schools or private boarding schools. Hence, you will be entering into academic settings wherein the playing field is not level.

Good. What that means is you will have to learn how to compete. You will most likely work harder than your peers to understand the same material they might have touched on when they were in 10th grade. You will most likely spend more time going to professors’ and TAs’ office hours to understand concepts that others may find elementary. It is what it is. You might have to go to twice the amount of networking and campus recruiting events to be offered an internship compared to your fellow students whose family network might have given them the leverage to guarantee an internship even before applying. That is the world we live in. While you don’t have control over who gets these advantages, you do have control over how you prepare yourself for success academically and professionally. The fact that you have a harder road ahead of you will form your character as a competitor, and that will be your advantage when you enter into uncertain job markets and volatile economies. If you can be comfortable with difficult situations now, you will be much better off when professional challenges arise like looking for internships, job-hunting or negotiating for a promotion.

#2 Your Current Network is your Eventual Net Worth

Companies and organizations are teams composed of people that are formed to achieve a goal (which, more often than not, is to make money). When you realize that work is a human enterprise, then you can think of professional success as relational success.

You get hired for a job when you can convince recruiters that you are a worthwhile investment and that you can generate more value than you are going to be paid for (i.e. your value to the company is higher than your salary). You “succeed” in the workplace when you can work with co-workers and teammates to complete projects for constituents (who are also people with their own needs and wants). You get “promoted” in a company when you can prove to executives that you have the leadership skills to guide a team to project completion effectively while maintaining the very human relationship with your clients. Therefore, it is imperative that you understand how people behave, reason, and ultimately work together.

Be a student to human nature. Interact with diverse groups of people. From engineers, artists, accountants, supply chain aficionados, dancers, scientists, etc. And then understand that this latticework of human connections form a social network you can eventually tap into for professional leverage. That very network is the source of internships, jobs, business opportunities, major deals, etc.

#3 Think 10 Moves Ahead and Work Backwards

Chess grandmasters are known to think 10-15 moves ahead of their current position. They do so in order to move pieces to guarantee a checkmate. Life is no different. It has been my experience that when I think multiple moves ahead, I give myself the ability to “position” myself strategically to increase my odds of success. For example, as a first generation international student, if I were to project 10 moves ahead I would be a homeowner in the Philippines and I would have provided my widowed mom her very own condominium unit in Manila. For me to achieve that outcome, the first move is I have to calculate how much the monthly cost for a unit is in Manila (which is approximately 25,000 pesos, or $500). Next move: for me to send that money back home, I need to be employed abroad because $500 is already the monthly salary of a recent graduate in the Philippines; hence, I decided to study in America. Following that logic, to be employed in America I need to fulfill certain legal requirements: specifically that of the F-1 visa and the OPT rules that come with it. Given these factors, I made a “move” to pursue a graduate degree which is STEM-certified, and upon graduation I am given 36 months to work in the United States. And because the median salary of a business analyst in the United States is ~$97,000 according to glassdoor.com, I would be in a much better position to send $500+ to make sure my mom is in a safe and comfortable condo unit in the Philippines. Those are my ~10 moves projected into the future. What are yours?

The Key Takeaway

To sum it all up: learn how to compete, understand human dynamics, purposefully grow your network, and think 10 moves ahead. When you have a concrete goal you want to achieve and you maintain the mindset that you have full agency over your internal locus of control, then it will only be a matter of time before you experience professional success. As a first-generation student, the road is going to be tough; but, if you got this far, we already know you’re tougher.


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