Finding Your First Internship as a First-Gen Student

This article contains some great tips as you begin your internship search as well as some advice for once you have landed your first internship.

Common challenges

For many first-generation college students, the point of college is to develop tangible skills for future employment. While maintaining a solid GPA shows employers good work-ethic, time-management, and academic success, relevant extracurricular experience is equally, if not more important, for other non-academic occupations.

Students coming from top-notch public schools and elite private schools have the added bonus of being well-connected and coming from more affluent, industrial cities. These conditions make finding off-campus internships significantly easier for them.

With that, comes a common challenge unconnected first-gen college students face. Finding internships.

Do not fear! The key to securing internships is not out of reach for you or other students who have a small or less established network! We can fill this gap ourselves! The key is being proactive and leveraging meaningful relationships. This can be as simple as networking on LinkedIn to find companies taking on interns.

How to be efficient with your search

Don’t feel ashamed to ask your family, family-friends, or mutual connections that you are looking for an internship. Some peers I’ve talked to look down on using personal connections for securing internships, calling the method “nepotistic” or “unfair”. I firmly believe connections will always be a powerful factor in the world. Not taking advantage of your connections just puts you at a disadvantage.

Another useful method is connecting with companies by reaching out to hiring managers and human resources. Even with the free version, LinkedIn is invaluable for this! For example, go on LinkedIn’s search engine under “people”, and, then, type in something along the lines of “Company A hiring”, “Company B recruiter”, or “Company C talent acquisition”.

Screenshot of UCSB's networking and career finding website. Called Handshake.
The home page that my school and many others use as their career network platforms.


Also, check company websites for open internships positions throughout the year. Also make use of your school’s job board and career services. For example, my school has a portal called HandShake. These are useful because there are companies looking to recruit specifically from schools like yours!


Something I realized while networking – whether on LinkedIn or in-person – is that most people are extremely friendly and generous about helping out college students. Many of them were in our shoes once!

When directly reaching out to people, make sure to craft a concise, to-the-point, and polite introduction that details why you are reaching out to them. When reaching out, have a firm sense of humility because these are essentially strangers to you, helping you from the kindness of their hearts.

For example, it would be seen as extremely rude to ask a complete stranger to get you an internship at their place of work without previous rapport, so be personable and gracious. Above all, this is where you get to flex your people skills!

At the very least, you can ask questions that will give a greater insight into what you need to be doing to get an internship in their respective occupation. They can even point you in the right direction with some pointers, or refer you to someone else that may be better equipped to help you. Always be sure to thank them for their time, and conclude with a personalized thank you email or message.

Building up your professional track record

Another point of concern for students looking for their first internship is that they don’t believe they have the right experience/background. Internships in a lot of ways is a sign of privilege. Not everyone is blessed with time to intern. For example, some college students work part-time, lack a mode of transportation, etc.

The key to filling up your resume and building your professional portfolio, is making the most of your extracurricular involvements on campus! This can range from getting involved with clubs, organizations, fraternities/sororities, online certificates/classes, volunteer work, part-time work, academic research, the list goes on and on.

Most hiring managers are understanding that many full-time students do not have a focused professional background. This is why it’s important to emphasize not only your capacity to learn and your interest in the subject, but also your desire to learn and contribute as an intern.

Also, emphasize your soft skills! Whether it be your ability to think critically, write well, public speaking, working with numbers, working independently, or working collaboratively with others. Think of it this way, your resume is to get your foot in the door; your interview is your chance to show the interviewer why you’re the ideal candidate.

Personal Anecdote

A pic from my LinkedIn of a Marketing internship
Here’s a pic from my LinkedIn at the internship my dad help me get connected with.

During my junior year, I scrambled during winter/spring to secure a summer internship. I was looking for something primarily in the sales/business development/marketing sphere, but was met with rejection after rejection. Despite not knowing exactly what I wanted to do, I thought business would be interesting. As a result, I was primarily going about my search through word-of-mouth and online job boards ranging from LinkedIn, Monster, and Indeed.

By Spring, I was feeling defeated. I had a decent GPA of about 3.3 and extracurriculars ranging from online certifications, on-campus club participation, and involvement in a professional fraternity. I was just a young college kid looking for someone to give me a chance.

One day, my dad called saying someone he met during work from another company and was looking to help me. It ended up being a digital marketing internship at a mid-sized financial firm in San Diego.

So what’s the takeaway?

What I’ve been emphasizing is… USE YOUR CONNECTIONS!!! Although first-gen students generally lack the amount of connections their peers have, it’s important to constantly be active in searching for opportunities.

With securing internships becoming more and more competitive, you’ve got to use everything in your arsenal. That means have a great resume, prepare for interviews, research places you want to intern, research roles of interest, maintain a competitive GPA, develop your personal brand, use your personal connections, use your school’s connections, and take trips to career services. With there being so many variables going into securing an internship, persistence is non-negotiable.

Lastly, here are some general tips for when you land an internship.

1. Get ready for grunt work, but maintain a grateful mindset

I know it can be frustrating sometimes to get stuck doing bottom-barrel work as an intern, but just understand that internships are where many young professional “pay their dues.”

I mean how can anyone trust you with more important duties if you can’t handle the small stuff?

If it really becomes an issue, or you feel like you could contribute more, take the effort to express this to your supervisor or manager. As long as you phrase things politely and from the angle of someone with a desire to contribute and learn, there shouldn’t be any issues!

2. Take the time to network and meet people!

This goes beyond talking to people within your unit or other interns. During breaks take the effort to greet strangers at work, who knows, you might end up making friends.

This is especially helpful for those without a clear-cut career plan. Talking to people outside of your unit will expose you to different occupations and positions.

For example, during my internship this past summer at a bank, I got to talk to digital marketers, SalesForce Admins, Staff Accountants, UI/UX designers, and so on. I even got to talk to some executives like the CFO, CMO, and the CEO during a “meet and greet”.

3. Be flexible, courteous, and adaptable

Being an intern is hard and it comes with challenges. Whether you’re interning at a small company, a mid-sized company, or even a huge Fortune 500 company, you’re going to have to navigate through some level of bureaucracy and office politics.

This means being respectful to your managers and superiors. This also means being conscious of the atmosphere, or what some call the “culture”. And finally, be ready to adapt to changing duties and responsibilities.

Unless you’re at an extremely structured internship, your duties as an intern may not be clear-cut and that’s ok. Just view every challenge, every task as a stepping stone to something greater in the long-run.


Marlon Blue II

By Jodyi Wren
Jodyi Wren Executive Director & Assistant Dean