Success strategies for higher-ed’s new influencers: first-gen professionals

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rep mw book hed r 550pxIn her new book, which has attracted crowds at conferences and online discussions, Mary Blanchard Wallace, Ph.D., assistant vice president of Student Experience at UAB, explains why first-generation students make great first-generation professionals. She then shares stories and strategies for mastering the hidden curricula of the workplace, from navigating office politics to coping with imposter syndrome and making career-building professional connections.Just before she left for her first professional conference, Mary Blanchard Wallace proudly showed her mother the new blue jeans she purchased for the occasion. “I had only worked in the hardware store” that her father and mother owned in the small Louisiana town of Brusly, recalled Wallace, who went on to earn a doctorate in workforce education and is now assistant vice president of Student Experience at UAB. “I only knew jeans and, if you wanted to dress up, nice jeans.”

As Wallace writes in her new book, “First-generation Professionals in Higher Education: Strategies for the World of Work” ($34.95, Center for First-Generation Student Success — purchase from publisher here), her mother’s reaction was decisive. “You cannot wear jeans, Mary,” she said. “This is not a hardware conference.” Her mother proceeded to sew a new pair of slacks and gave Wallace her own silk blouse to wear. “Looking back on that moment, I now understand that I was still developing and understanding the hidden curriculum of my new work: the dress code,” Wallace writes. Although she was embarrassed that “I did not understand the mores of my new profession,” Wallace said, “my mom knew what I did not know, and she saved me from the greater embarrassment of how I would have pictured myself if I had worn those jeans to the conference.”

First-gen students make great first-gen professionals in higher education, Wallace argues. “In my experience, we fight for the underdog, because we have been there,” she said. “We understand that there are root causes behind these situations and know what it is like to have your feet in many different worlds. It was because someone invested in me as a student that I made it.” But success in professional work can require different skills than the ones needed to graduate. As Wallace found out, there is a hidden curriculum with an array of courses, from networking to navigating office politics.

"A story for every student"

The UAB freshman class of fall 2021 was the largest and most diverse in university history, with more than 45 percent representing minority populations and 28 percent first-generation students.

“There is a story for every student,” said Wallace, who is assistant vice president of Student Experience at UAB. “My job is to listen to them and affirm them and find resources so they can be successful — not just graduate or be retained, but so they can fulfill their dreams and the dreams of their families.”

In “First-generation Professionals in Higher Education,” Wallace and 14 other chapter co-authors share their stories and strategies for mastering these skills when you do not have lived experiences to fall back on. How do you find a mentor? How can you prepare yourself financially, so you are free to move in search of the right job fit? How do you make the kind of small talk in a conference buffet line that can spark new friendships in your field? The book, which is the first of its kind, answers these questions in ways that are both research-driven and eminently practical. (See LOL Tours and Six-Degree Maps.)

Book buzz builds in person and online

Wallace’s latest conference trip was memorable for an entirely different reason than her first. At the annual meeting of NASPA, the national association of student affairs administrators in higher education, in March 2022, “First-generation Professionals in Higher Education” was the bestselling book, and Wallace’s book-signing generated the longest line. “Watching the reception of this book has been a professional highlight for me,” she said.

Her book has generated online buzz as well. Each of the 10 chapters includes a series of reflection questions. Every Friday, Wallace and La’Tonya Rease Miles, Ph.D., a chapter author and founder of the Empowering First-Generation College Students Facebook group, have been posting one of those reflection questions to the group. “The post from last Friday has over 150 responses,” Wallace said in mid-April. “Through the posts, we have found three or four more authors and given people the voice to share their stories.”

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LOL Tours and Six-Degree maps

The advice and strategies shared in Wallace’s book follow the directive “speak simply,” she said.

Describing how to navigate workplace bureaucracy and politics, Willie Banks, Ph.D., vice chancellor for Student Affairs at University of California Irvine, suggests an LOL Tour — listening, observing and learning to get the lay of the land.

In their chapter on the importance of professional networks and resources, Samantha Payton, Ph.D., director of Research, Assessment and Planning at the University of Mississippi, and Brandi Hephner LaBanc, Ph.D., vice chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, begin by explaining the why of networking.

“First-generation professionals tend to rely heavily on self,” they write. “Though this character trait is a strength … in terms of resilience, problem solving and intrinsic motivation, it can create a challenge when it comes to networking and self-advocacy.” Why put yourself through the stress? “Successful networking is about forming authentic connections between yourself and others and being directed to tap into resources that will support your goals.” Payton and Hephner LaBanc then proceed to practical ways to build out those connections — including creating a Six Degrees of Separation map (a nod to the pop culture-famous Kevin Bacon game) to find new links in the chain needed to expand a professional network.

“It’s time for a book like this”

The idea for the book originated in a conversation at another conference, where Wallace was talking with Sarah Whitley, Ph.D., assistant vice president with NASPA’s Center for First-generation Student Success. “I said there are things about being a new assistant vice president that feel like when I was a first-gen college student,” Wallace recalled. “It feels new to me, even though I have been in the field 25 years. It really goes back to how first-gen professionals navigate.” Contrary to the prevailing deficit-based language around first-gen students, groups such as the Center for First-generation Student Success have begun to emphasize these students’ assets and how they can be leveraged for success. Wallace wanted to extend the idea to first-gen professionals as they moved into mid-level and higher positions. Whitley said, “I think you are onto something.”

Wallace came back to UAB and talked with her boss, John R. Jones III, Ph.D., vice president for Student Affairs, who suggested she write a book on the topic. “I replied, ‘Are you kidding? All that is out there are a few dissertations,’” Wallace said. “And he said, ‘That’s the perfect reason to write a book.’ So I took the idea to some trusted colleagues in the field to workshop it and they told me, ‘Mary, we have to do this. It’s time for a book like this.’”

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Making the mid-level transition

Just as first-gen students do, first-gen professionals in higher education need support, Wallace says. This is especially true as they reach mid-level positions, usually at director level, with eight to 10 years of experience. “That is usually when you get your first big budget, staff and experience with politics,” she said.

Other challenges include “developing networks to prepare for job transitions, finding sponsors and senior-level mentors, and defining next career steps,” Wallace writes in her opening chapter. “This book is a resource for mid-level first-generation professionals, to increase understanding of the topics presented and to encourage them to reflect on their own journey in higher education. As such, each chapter ends with activities, exercises and/or reflection questions.”

Contributing to change

Still, Wallace said she is not naturally a risk-taker, and the idea of writing a book “was like climbing the Grand Canyon for me.” So she is glad that “Dr. Jones pushed me out there.” UAB’s culture of innovation inspired her to take on the project as well, Wallace says. “There is such a vibe here to change the world and to use your skills and abilities to do that. I have always been encouraged to find my niche and contribute to knowledge-building.”

To her surprise, Wallace found herself enjoying the process. “I expected as a first-time editor that I would be tearing my hair out,” she said. “But this has been such an affirming project. It was a labor of love and a sheer joy to write and edit, and we had a great group — the authors came together and treated it like a learning community, building on our combined knowledge.”

The center suggested she connect with LT Miles, who was an executive director of First Year Experience and Strategic Initiatives at UCLA and then dean of Student Affairs at Menlo College before joining the startup Career Launch as partner and director of Scale and Support. (Miles and Danette Buie, Ed.D., wrote a chapter on resilience.) Other authors, including Brian Hemphill, Ph.D., the first African American president at Old Dominion University and co-author of a chapter on pathways to senior leadership, came through connections in Jones’ network. (Jones wrote the book’s chapter on understanding personal finances.) Wallace also tapped other members of her network, including her personal mentor Doris Ching, Ph.D., emeritus vice president for Student Affairs for the University of Hawai’i System. “We had great diversity in this book, including racial diversity, LGBTQ authors, staff, senior-level administrators and faculty,” Wallace said.

Wallace has already identified several gaps that she would like to fill in a second book — including the role of familial expectations — and is outlining areas for further research. “There is more work to do and more support to put in place for first-generation professionals,” she said.