First-Generation Professionals: Another Dimension of Diversity

A new employee organization at State spotlights the challenges commonly faced by first-generation college students, graduates, and professionals.


FirstGen Isaiah Roland (center) protects Queen Máxima of the Netherlands (right) as the Diplomatic Security Service special agent in charge during her U.S. visit to San Francisco and Austin in September 2022. He is currently serving as regional security officer, U.S. Embassy Kingston.
Courtesy of Scott Winton

Did you know that in 2021 more than half of all children under 18 in the United States lived in households where no parent had a college degree? More than half of today’s college students are “First-Gens.” Yet only about a quarter of them go on to complete their college degree. The social and financial barriers they contend with in college often continue to burden them even after graduating and entering the workforce.

Founded in November 2022, FirstGens @   State is a new employee organization that heightens public and workforce awareness of the challenges commonly faced by first-generation college students, graduates, and professionals (FirstGens), as well as employees from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.

United by a shared experience, FirstGens @   State is a diverse community that envisions a world in which the insight and socioeconomic understanding of FirstGens strengthen the U.S. government’s ability to advance our national interests. Their experiences help inform diplomacy, aiding the State Department to better understand and communicate with socioeconomically disadvantaged communities abroad, providing unique expertise on domestic socioeconomic challenges, and broadening the department’s representation of our country.

We are creating an environment in which employees can tell their stories, find mentors, and offer support to fellow FirstGens @   State members, thus fostering a sense of belonging and shared purpose. After one year, more than 400 members call FirstGens @   State home.

First-Generation Challenges

The Higher Education Act of 1965 defines a first-generation college student as “an individual ... whose parent(s) did not complete a baccalaureate degree.” FirstGens @   State has expanded this definition to include first- and second-generation immigrants who were first in their family to have a U.S. college experience.

Lack of income compounded with financial uncertainty contribute to a long list of obstacles that frequently confront first-generation students. This type of pressure can become insurmountable and often affects the student’s academic performance, and for first-generation professionals, these challenges may remain throughout their career.

The State Department now actively recruits FirstGens and community college students through targeted outreach with educational institutions.

The invisible barriers faced by FirstGens can include not just financial concerns but also social stigma, classism, discrimination, lack of expertise and advice on navigating an academic system and profession, absence of a professional network, and psychological challenges like shame, family guilt, and anxiety. Moreover, as first-generation professionals enjoy the benefits of upward social mobility, they are learning to live in a new environment that is dissociated from their home. As a result, they may feel a lack of belonging to both their professional environment and their family and friends of origin, creating greater feelings of isolation.

A study by Dick Startz, professor of economics at the University of California–Santa Barbara, found that first-generation students are more likely to come from lower-income families (with an average income of $58,000) than continuing-generation students (i.e., those with at least one college-educated parent or guardian and a family income averaging $120,000). First-generation students often work 20 hours or more a week to finance their education, which can come at the expense of classwork, studying, and extracurricular activities that strengthen a job résumé.

These financial concerns remain a psychological impediment for first-generation professionals, who generally avoid jobs where financial security is not guaranteed, including federal employment. A government shutdown with furloughs represents the pinnacle of anxiety for many first-generation federal workers. Moreover, first-generation Foreign Service officers and specialists often feel compelled to choose maximum compensation through hardship and danger assignments overseas to achieve financial stability, forgoing professional opportunities in Washington, D.C.

FirstGens @   State VP for Membership and FirstGen Flory “Yazmin” Ore receives an award from Ambassador Jeffry L. Flake at U.S. Embassy Ankara during a rotation as his staff assistant in 2023.
Courtesy of Scott Winton

Social Barriers

FirstGens also face social barriers. Startz’s research found that first-generation students are more likely to choose a less selective school than their peers. This can be attributed to fewer selective schools having open admission policies, charging lower tuition and fees, and requiring less knowledge to navigate the admissions process. Furthermore, according to Mikhail Zinshteyn in a March 2016 Atlantic article, “around 90 percent of lower-income first-generation students don’t graduate within six years, far below the national average.” Says Zinshteyn: “The ‘hidden curriculum’—the mix of bureaucratic know-how and sound study skills that can make or break a student’s first year in college” hinders their ability to complete college. First-generation students are also less likely to participate in career fairs or use college résumé services than their peers, according to data from NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education).

While parental income matters, the importance of an educated parent/guardian cannot be undervalued. It affects the child’s educational outcomes and continues to provide benefits for the remainder of the person’s life, including throughout a career. These social benefits include exposure to wide-ranging vocabulary in the household, access to quality primary and secondary schools, professional networks, the privilege of legacy admissions, access to quality health care, and food security, to name a few examples.

To overcome these challenges, FirstGens have developed many valuable skills and abilities. Often, because they lack a financial safety net, they are dedicated and driven to succeed. They have no option to fail, because many fear adding to the burden of family members who are themselves sometimes struggling financially. Many juggled multiple jobs while attending college and thus developed advanced multitasking, customer service, time management, and organizational skills. As a result, FirstGens may enter the professional environment with a wider skill set than those who have not had to work early in life. Many have learned to source and compete for scholarships, learning to tell their personal stories in a way that prepares them to share American stories to the world.

As first-generation professionals enjoy the benefits of upward social mobility, they are learning to live in a new environment that is dissociated from their home.

Progress at State

The State Department, as part of its efforts to promote diversity and inclusivity, now actively recruits FirstGens and community college students through targeted outreach with educational institutions. On Nov. 8, 2023, the department marked FirstGen Celebration Day and Week for the first time in its history. In November, the Bureau of Global Talent Management (GTM) hosted FirstGens @   State members for a virtual “Ask Us Anything” session targeted at first-generation student employee candidates. In addition, GTM highlighted on social media the inspiring story of Marta Youth’s journey from a first-generation student to principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

In June 2023, GTM’s national recruiter for first-generation students invited FirstGens @   State members to participate in NASPA’s Student Success Conferences to share their professional journeys into the State Department with academics, college career advisers, and students. GTM and FirstGens @   State representatives discussed how this new employee organization was working to make the department the employer of choice for FirstGens. The national recruiter has also fostered partnerships with organizations serving FirstGens, including the Council for Opportunity in Education (, NASPA’s Center for First-Generation Student Success (, and regional, state-level, and university programs that support FirstGens throughout their academic careers in an effort to attract these underrepresented populations into federal service.

Our members share the goal of fostering respect, dignity, and inclusion within the federal government. In August 2023, FirstGens @   State held its first listening session with experienced members of the department who are FirstGens. Members created an open and empathetic space for employees to hear the personal stories of successful achievers, the adversity that shaped them, and the obstacles that remain. One FirstGens @   State global session featured Tiffany Henderson, who serves as the department’s first-ever specialist advocate. U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Lesotho Maria Brewer presented a session titled “Maximize Your Success.”

Since its founding in 2022, FirstGens @   State has advocated for members’ priorities, aligned activities with the unions representing federal employees of the foreign affairs agencies, launched a quarterly newsletter, and developed financial literacy guides for new employees.

FirstGens @   State members Elsanor Lam and the author participate in the 2023 First-Generation Student Success Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, representing State at a GTM-sponsored recruitment event. Lam is a foreign affairs officer in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs’ Office of Global Programs and Policy.
Courtesy of Scott Winton

Ways to Improve Representation

“The Federal Government should have a workforce that reflects the diversity of the American people,” states Executive Order (E.O.) 14035 (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce), adding that more representative and inclusive workplaces “yield higher-performing organizations.” Here are some ideas to improve representation in the State Department, create more inclusive foreign affairs agencies, and reflect the interests of America’s working class in our foreign policy.

Recruit for national representation. Increase recruitment from nonselective schools to improve representation in U.S. foreign affairs agencies. Ultimately, this would increase our talent pool of candidates and reduce the U.S. government’s dependency on feeder schools, many of which employ legacy admission policies. Reinforce GTM’s engagement with colleges that host U.S. Department of Education Federal TRIO programs, which are designed to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. TRIO alums make excellent recruits, building off the Education Department’s and Congress’ long-standing investment in first-generation students (FirstGens @   State also serves as an alumni organization for TRIO alums working at the State Department).

Seek authenticity, not an election campaign poster. End the popularized but inauthentic phrase “look like America” as the litmus test for diversity. At best, it’s a marketing gimmick that perpetuates historical stereotypes. At worst, it’s a cheap endeavor that reinforces visible biases about what marginalized communities “look” like. We need to “represent America.”

Thanks to the Secretary of State’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion and GTM, we have data, so let’s use it. Using demographic data, including the categories defined by E.O. 14035, is a starting point and will help ensure foreign affairs agencies reflect the various communities that represent our nation. Moreover, we should publish disaggregated self-identification data on socioeconomic indicators, including FirstGen status, geographic origin, and educational background of employees’ parents/guardians. We should also ask new hires to voluntarily provide these indicators during the onboarding process to track the effectiveness of recruitment efforts.

Leaders should encourage stories of FirstGens within foreign affairs agencies.

Fight invisibility. Adversity faced by FirstGens is not always visible. In fact, first-generation students, graduates, and professionals spend much of their lives hiding identifiers that may indicate to their peers that they grew up socioeconomically disadvantaged. This needs to change, but it will take time: Socioeconomically disadvantaged children experience shame at some point in their childhoods, if not the entirety of their childhoods, despite having no control over their circumstances. First-generation professionals may feel ashamed about telling their personal stories even though they are authentic examples of the American dream and the social mobility our democracy fosters. Leaders should encourage stories of FirstGens within foreign affairs agencies, highlight their achievements, and promote their recruitment from both rural and urban communities to the U.S. foreign affairs fellowship programs.

Provide financial aid for new hires with need. New hires from outside the capital region accrue moving expenses and debt to relocate to Washington, D.C., an urban area with a high cost of living. If Congress wants the U.S. foreign affairs workforce to reflect the geographic diversity of our country, then arm these agencies with relocation assistance to support new hires with financial need.

This is not just a matter of representation for diversity’s sake; rather, it shows the strength of our democratic form of government, which deploys diplomats and development professionals who fully reflect the country they serve.

Scott B. Winton, one of the founders of the Department of State’s employee organization FirstGens @   State, served as its president from November 2022 to March 2024. He is a first-generation college graduate and TRIO alum from Branson, Missouri, joining the U.S. Foreign Service in 2009 through the Thomas R. Pickering Graduate Foreign Affairs Fellowship. He holds a BSBA from the University of Missouri–Columbia and an M.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. He is currently on detail to the Office of the Vice President as the special adviser to the vice president for the Western Hemisphere. The opinions and information presented are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect or characterize State Department policy.


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