First-Gen Students Find Success with These Three Tips

Haylie June is a first-generation student, which means she will be the first in her family to obtain a bachelor’s degree. A sociology senior from Racine, Wisconsin, June feels she’s had amazing experiences at BYU. Still, she’s recognized the disadvantages and unique struggles that first-generation students face as they navigate college life without guidance from parents or grandparents.

Hundreds of students like June arrive at BYU every year blazing a new trail and setting an example for the next generation, for siblings, and even for parents.

Here are some simple tips for first-generation students looking to find their place at BYU.

1. Join the First-Generation Club

According to The Pell Institute, first-generation students are four times more likely to leave higher education after the first year than their peers. To combat this risk factor, BYU first-gen students have created the First-Generation Student Organization, a BYUSA club dedicated to providing sustained support to first-gen students at BYU. Supervised by Ben Gibbs, assistant professor of sociology, the club hosts weekly events designed to help first-gen students learn to network and find mentors.

June discovered the First Generation club early last semester, and believes the greatest value in the club is sharing knowledge with people in a similar situation and relating to other students. She says, “Being part of this club and meeting students that have similar, but also different experiences than me, has really helped me develop new skills and look outside of myself. It gives me an opportunity to serve and get to know people that I wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise.”

2. Seek Out Mentors

The club emphasizes the importance of seeking mentors. June’s college experience completely changed when she shifted her perspective, realizing that “there’s people here to help me and [who] want to help [me] succeed, and they’re offering me skills and mentorship that are making these experiences more meaningful.”

June found the mentoring she was seeking in the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences as she pursues a degree in sociology. “At first, sociology felt like the fastest way to get a degree and apply for law school,” says June. “But I got a job as a TA for a research class and started doing research with that professor, and now I want to be a professor myself.”

June’s mentor, Michael R. Cope, associate professor of sociology, is a first-gen student himself. “Seeing him as a first-generation student in an academic setting, as someone who I would consider very successful, that has been a great example to me that you can do it — that there are people like you in these academic settings,” says June. She’s even had the opportunity to co-author a peer-reviewed journal article with Cope.  

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Talk to Professors

While every student experiences the fear that they’re irritating professors by reaching out, it can be hard for first-gen students to ask for help since they’ve been so independent in getting to college. This can be intimidating, but June says, “All my experiences with mentors in this college… have made me feel very valued and important, and I’ve never felt like a burden when I’m asking questions or needing guidance.”

Professors and teaching assistants are put in place to help students. First-generation students shouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of office hours and email communication.

Haylie enjoys a BYU football game with her husband and son. (Haylie June)

June plans to continue sociology research, focusing on first-gen students and motherhood during college. Her experiences navigating college as a first-generation student have helped her build empathy and other attributes that serve her in her family and academic roles.

“If there’s anything I’ve learned, don’t hesitate to invite students — whether they’re first-gen or not — to share the knowledge you have,” say’s June. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to your friends or your classmates to offer help and support when you can.”

To learn more about the First-Generation Student Organization, visit their website.

Inside Washington Seminar

The most important experiences of your college career may not be in a traditional classroom. Internships provide the opportunity for you to make valuable connections as you apply what you are learning on campus to real-world situations. BYU’s Washington Seminar program is an excellent way about 40 students experience internships each semester.

>>The deadline to apply for Winter 2022 semester is September 24, 2021. Visit 945 KMBL or http://washingtonseminar.byu.edu. BYU has a database of 1,500 internships in the Washington area.

Through the program, well-qualified students have an applied learning experience in Washington, D.C. BYU houses interns on its own property, the Barlow Center, which is conveniently situated in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood. Engaging in a quality internship, briefings on current issues, tours, excursions, and weekly guest speakers supplements students’ academic training and better prepares them for a variety of careers.

“Washington Seminar is one of the crown jewels of BYU,” 2020-21 program director Dr. Jay Goodliffe said. “BYU has invested heavily in resources in D.C. because they realize the opportunities our students have there will then help them influence the world.”

The Washington Seminar program accepts students from all colleges and majors. We talked to four outstanding students from the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences about what it’s like to participate in the program and how living in Washington has enhanced their vision of future possibilities.

Olivia DeMordaunt

Q: Where were you an intern?

A: National Defense University. It functions like a military academy for people who want to get a master’s degree in national security. I work in the International Student Management Office (ISMO). The “students” are mid-career military professionals. One-fourth of the cohort are generals from around the world—there are 130 generals from 65 countries. They are chosen by their respective countries to come.

These are men and women who have commanded whole armies and navies. I try to honor and respect them in asking about their lives and their careers.

Olivia DeMordaunt, Senior Studying Political Science

Q: It must have been interesting to be with seasoned generals from all over the world. Tell me about it.

A: These are men and women who have commanded whole armies and navies. It’s a weird experience for them to come to the United States and be under somebody’s responsibility again. We are a support office to help them adjust to the United States, find housing, schools for their kids, etc. while they are here for a year, so they can focus on their experience and not have to worry about the difficult things that come with adjusting to a new place. I try my best to honor and respect them in asking them about their lives and their careers and why they chose what they do.

Q: What was a favorite experience you’ve had on your internship?

A: Eight students in joint armed war services came up to D.C. for five days and do a tour. They were going to Arlington National Cemetery and I got to go with them as an escort. During the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I was talking to a man from England and he had been a member of the Queen’s Guard. He had served with Prince William and Prince Harry in Afghanistan and had done tours with them. He has all this intense training that he has to do to guard the queen, and he has to learn to talk without moving his lips. It was so fascinating to learn about that part of the culture in the United Kingdom and to be walking around with this incredible man, learning about his life and his culture and why he decided to do what he did.

Austin Brady

Q: Where were you an intern?

A: I’m with a group called International Business-Government Counsellors (IBC). They are an international consulting and lobbying firm. The big mission is to provide research and information to their clients. They serve a lot of big companies that you would recognize.

An example of what they do is give information on sanctions. Say company X has business in China. There might be some laws coming down about trade with China. What are those laws, how will it affect the company, what should they do to be prepared? An IBC counselor would tell them.

Q: What is your day-to-day?

A: I did a mix of attending various hearings, like congressional hearings, and taking notes for the counsellors, and other small events—attending panels and doing write-ups on those. Occasionally I’d do other projects, like digging into a specific tariff bill or digging into congressional members and seeing if they’ve said anything scandalous that might get the company into some trouble if they donate to them. I do a weekly update about China and trade news, and human rights news.

Q: It sounds like you are probably in the know about a lot of things dealing with international relations that the average person isn’t.

A: It’s more niche China stuff, or I was keeping track of the civil war in Ethiopia. If people want to know about certain products from China being detained, then cool, but it’s not a thing you pull out at parties.

I’m even more curious. I want to keep learning more and see what else is out there.

Austin Brady, Senior Studying Political Science

Q: How has this internship impacted you as a person so far?

A: It’s been really interesting going to the various meetings between policymakers and their various clients. We always hear about the interplay between businesses and government–interplay is maybe a soft word—and it’s interesting seeing how some of this unfolds in real time. It’s a different perspective. It’s looking top-down.

Personally, it’s been really interesting learning about all these weird specific niche things. Like tracking China trade closely. No one cares about customs and border protection seizing goods. Or how prevalent forced labor is within China and maybe the rest of our supply chain. I’m even more curious. I want to keep learning more and see what else is out there.

Q: What advice do you have for students considering an internship through the Washington Seminar program?

A: Do it. If you’re thinking about it, just apply. It’s a really neat experience. The internship you’ll end up doing in itself will be an experience, and the weekly briefings are really interesting. It’s often experienced professionals in their field talking about what they do or what they know in a pretty direct way. It’s neat to have a Q&A with a senator, for example, and get to ask them about issues off the books, because they’re a little more free. You get an insight into how some of these people think.

Kesley Powell

Q: Where did you intern?

A: TargetPoint Consulting. They are a public opinion and market research firm. They work on political campaigns. We run a lot of surveys to find out how the public feels about a piece of legislation or a candidate, and try to help our clients win whatever their issue is. We also do a lot of market research, working for corporations or companies or nonprofits. We are really just focused on gauging public perception on issues our clients care about.

Say someone wanted to pass a bill in 2022. They would come to us now to figure out what public opinion is, and we’d do what’s called message testing. They’ll give us their top four messages they use to help people change their minds, and in our survey we can figure out which message is the most influential. We are involved in every stage of the campaigning process.

Q: What do you like best about your job?

A: I’ve always really liked politics, and as a political science major I discovered data and became really passionate about data. In my internship I get to see how we can use data in the real world. We get results, we actually act upon them, and can have an influence on the country or in a certain state. I like the real-world application.

Q: When did you decide to do the Washington Seminar?

A: When I was in high school I was trying to decide where to go to school for my bachelor’s degree. I was really attracted to a lot of east coast schools because I wanted to live in D.C, but I had also always wanted to go to BYU. As I was trying to decide what school to go to, I found out about the Washington Seminar program and I thought ‘Perfect, I’m going to go to BYU and do this program, and that will be my little taste of the East Coast.’ So I’ve known for four years that I was going to do this program.

I’ve become a lot more certain of what I want to do and who I want to be because of this experience.

Kesley Powell, Senior Studying Political Science

Q: What do you like about living in D.C.?

A: I really love history and this is where it happened. I also love the city feel. The east coast is cobblestone walks along the ocean and that is my vibe.

My husband and I walk to the Lincoln Memorial every Sunday night once it cools down. Everyone knows what the Lincoln Memorial is from movies. It’s cool to actually be there. It’s so fun to sit on the steps and look out at the Mall, and see all the people touring.

I have loved being outside of Utah and being in D.C. and seeing the diversity of people and diversity of opinion. I love the ward that we’re in. It’s so welcoming.

Q: How will your last year of school be different now that you’ve done this internship? What will you take away from the experience?

A: I’ve become a lot more certain of what I want to do and who I want to be because of this experience. I’ve recognized what I can contribute to politics, and that I want to be a positive part of politics. I have gotten to interact with a lot of really kind and wonderful people here and it’s helped me want to be one of those people, so I can help create a more positive view of government.

I’ve always known I would go to grad school so I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take a gap year between my undergrad and other degrees (to work in consulting or on a campaign). This internship has made me more comfortable with that idea and strengthened my desire to be in both worlds at the same time. It has been very reassuring to know I’m on the right path.

Q: What would you tell students considering the Washington Seminar?

A: A lot of people want to come to D.C. but don’t know how, and the Washington Seminar program gives you a really good structure of helping you apply for internships and helping you know which internships are out there. Once you’re here, you have not only a place to live but also support throughout your entire internship. You’re surrounded by people who have the same interests as you, and they’re all trying to figure out the whole D.C. thing at the same time. We were mentored by Dr. Goodliffe, and he’s a really great resource in helping you navigate your internship. Living in the Barlow Center is amazing and super inexpensive.

It’s totally a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Erin Oliver

Erin Oliver poses at a women’s suffrage exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia during the 2021 Washington Seminar (Erin Oliver)

Q: Where did you intern?

A: I interned at a nonprofit called Atlas Corps. They do international development and have a fellowship program where they bring fellows to the United states and host them in different organizations here. They do a leadership program with them and prepare them to go back to their countries and fix social issues that are happening there.

Q: What are your responsibilities?

I get to work with the CEO and the communications team and I do a lot of writing reports, I do a lot of research, I work with the database and input donations from fundraising campaigns, and I do a lot of external outreach — a lot of communications stuff where I’m drafting messages or newsletters or reports that then gets sent to our list of contacts.

Q: What is your favorite part of your internship?

A: I get to go to a lot of events which is pretty fun. I got to attend this gala a week ago and the keynote speaker was Malala Yousafzai. She spoke and I got to be in a breakout room with her. It was really fun.

Q: Were you nervous when you started your internship?

A: I was a little nervous at the beginning of my internship. New environment. I definitely wanted to make a good impression on my team. But everyone is super nice and very welcoming, so that went away pretty fast.

Q: What do you love about living in D.C.?

A: There’s always things to do. Museums, and monuments. Truly if you want to go do something, just walk outside. The city’s just beautiful: architecture, monuments, nature/greenery…it’s just a pristine city.

Q: How did you know you wanted to do this program?

A: I had always heard about the Washington Seminar program because I’m a poli sci student. I knew I wanted to save it until the very end because I wanted to end up in D.C. I decided to try and plan an internship around my last semester in college; that way I could come out here and hopefully stay out here. I got a one-way ticket. Bold moves. Really, I just went for it and it’s paid off. I got a job so I’m staying out here.

Q: How did you get a job?

A: Networking is huge here. You do a lot of talking to people and I found some job postings and I applied to them and luckily one of my friends knew someone who was working at the organization I got a job at. I talked with him before I got interviewed.

Q: What is your new job?

A: I will be working at the American Foreign Service Association as a membership specialist.

Q: What did you learn from this experience of finding a job in D.C.?

A: It’s important to be confident in yourself. A lot of people our age tend to doubt their abilities. We’re an anxious group I think. Be confident in what you’ve learned. I know the political science program at BYU really prepared me well for everything I’ve done out here.

It’s important to be confident in yourself. A lot of people our age tend to doubt their abilities. Be confident in what you’ve learned.

Erin Oliver, Senior Studying Political Science

For more information on the Washington Seminar, visit https://washingtonseminar.byu.edu/.