Originally published in the inaugural edition of Carroll Capital, the print publication of the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. Read the full issue here.
A degree from the Carroll School can be, and usually is, life-changing for first generation students and their families. But it’s a long, hard road to graduation—filled with obstacles and complicated feelings around identity and their search for success. Luckily, they have each other, and new institutional resources, to help them navigate the challenges.
As Rowah Ibnaouf ’25 sat in front of her computer, trying to take part in her college freshman orientation virtually, the power in her aunt’s house kept conking out. It wasn’t an unfamiliar problem—the North Carolina native was spending the summer with her extended family in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city. The trip was an opportunity her mom wanted her to have before going off to college, and Ibnaouf was rolling with the punches as she navigated the unreliable 3G Wi-Fi and continuous power outages.
That visit “was a refreshing way to end high school and start something new,” she says. “I had to immerse myself in my roots and be confronted with the fact that this is who I am. This is what I love about myself.” Weeks later, when she walked onto the Boston College campus surrounded by strangers, embracing what she loved about herself didn’t seem so simple anymore.
Ibnaouf, who is studying information systems at the Carroll School of Management, is one of the 1,000-plus current Boston College students considered first generation, or “first gen,” college students, meaning undergraduates whose parents never enrolled in postsecondary education. Getting into college is difficult enough—Boston College admitted 15 percent of applicants into the class of 2027, the lowest rate in the school’s history—but in order to make it to graduation day, first generation students face an uphill battle. They have access to many institutional and community resources, but they still must navigate the academic challenges, the culture shocks, and the everyday financial struggles. They will also have to grapple with complicated feelings, ultimately, about the success they achieve.
Growing up in Delaware, Cindy Lin ’23 says she was raised knowing she wanted to go to college, but she didn’t completely understand how college would help her get a job later in life. “I didn’t know what a degree does for you,” she explains. Lin, who studied finance and accounting for finance at the Carroll School, is joining UBS as an investment banking analyst, but the road to getting there was a long one.
When she reviewed her wish list for the perfect college—medium sized, liberal arts emphasis, and a good business program—it was an advisor that pointed her toward Boston College. He even connected her with John Mahoney, the University’s vice provost for enrollment management, who retired at the end of this past academic year. When she visited the Heights, Mahoney made sure she got a good tour and Lin quickly realized it was the school for her.
“He became a major support figure for me,” Lin says, adding that she has even spent Thanksgiving with Mahoney’s family.
For first generation students who decide to attend Boston College, the university offers free college transition programs to ease students into college life. For many participants, this is also an important opportunity to bond with incoming first years that share things in common. The Learning to Learn office, which acts as an institutional support for underrepresented students, organizes the transition program BC F1RST, which has an annual cohort of around 40 students. “It’s a really close-knit community,” says Jimmy Kirwan ’23. Kirwan, a finance and English double major, met Lin during BC F1RST and the two have stayed close friends. As they both head to New York City after graduation to work in the investment banking industry, they plan on being roommates.
At the Carroll School, these students are supported by a robust network of faculty, staff, and alumni ready to help them achieve their goals. And yet, little can fully prepare students for the rigorous academic pace of a top university. “The workload hit me like a truck at first,” says William Sweet ’24, whose concentration is operations management. “It wasn’t harder than what I expected, because I knew what I was getting myself into going to a top school,” he says, but with no point of comparison, Sweet didn’t realize that the hard work of the semester ahead really did begin on day one. Because of the enrollment age cutoff date in his Brooklyn school district, he was also starting college at 17.
Lin agrees that adjusting to the workload of college wasn’t easy, especially when she admits that she struggles with perfectionism. After experiencing a monthslong illness during her first year on campus, Lin had to miss multiple classes because of doctor’s appointments. “It’s really easy to fall behind if you get sick or something,” she says. “These classes have so many assessments throughout the semester—quizzes that make up like 30 perecnt of your grade—it’s so easy for me to lose sight of the big picture.”
“I went to office hours freshman year and cried in front of the professor because I truly felt so alone and out of place. ”
While it might seem obvious enough to simply wave the white flag with professors, Ibnaouf thinks in some ways, asking for or accepting help can be a cultural minefield. “I know in African cultures, when someone offers you something, you’re supposed to say no the first three times before you take it,” she says. “That’s just etiquette. Even though my professors would say you can drop by for office hours anytime, I didn’t internalize the fact that they actually wanted us to be in their office, asking questions.”
When students were able to get themselves to office hours, the general consensus is that they found that their professors really did care about their success and wellbeing, not only in the classroom, but at that impressionable moment in their lives. “I went to office hours freshman year and cried in front of the professor because I truly felt so alone and out of place,” says Kirwan. His professor, Portico instructor Joseph Cioni, walked him over to University Counseling Services, where Kirwan was able to get an appointment the next day—an option that the Florida native says feels like a blessing. “I have been seeing the same therapist for four years and was recently referred to a psychiatrist on campus. This is the happiest and most ‘Jimmy’ version of myself I have felt,” he adds.
Mishal Khan ’24, an information systems and marketing student from Maryland, admits she struggled academically during her first year at the Carroll School, but that didn’t mean what she was being taught didn’t stick. “I had a really big wake-up call that grades are not everything,” says Khan. She embraced what she learned from her favorite Physical Computing and Coding for Business classes when she started applying for summer internships. “I did a bunch of interviews and coding technicals—and I was using code that I had learned in classes I didn’t exactly pass with the best grades, but I had retained that knowledge,” she adds. Those efforts landed her a summer internship this year with Discover. “They were trying to bring more women of color into their company and they flew me out to see where I would be working over the summer. It was everything I pray for.”
Diversity programs at top businesses are on the rise, and with that in mind, the Carroll School developed Career Bridge in 2020, a seven-week, pass/fail course for first generation and high financial need students during their first year at Boston College. The school was already offering a career accelerator course to all Carroll School students, but some people were falling through the cracks simply because they didn’t know the breadth of opportunities available to them.
“There’s a gap in educating students who come from underrepresented backgrounds,” says Andrew Barksdale, an assistant director for undergraduate career engagement at the Carroll School. “They’re forging a path for their families, and with forging a path, you don’t know until you know.” He adds that with job-recruiting cycles beginning sometimes as early as the fall of sophomore year, he worried about first generation students being out of the loop. “The wave just crashes past them. Very capable students, but they just didn’t know about the opportunities.”
Career Bridge launched in spring 2021 with Barksdale as instructor. He wishes a similar program existed when he was an undergrad at the Carroll School and a scholarship athlete playing varsity football. “I showed up to classes, but I was unprepared in terms of understanding what life was after football,” he says. “So the opportunity to educate students that have some similar disadvantages … I didn’t want to be left behind. That’s the connection I’ve made.”
After completing Career Bridge as a student, Sweet became a teaching assistant for the course. “The first year got us [students] thinking about what we can do to prepare for the future using the resources at CSOM to help us,” says Sweet. “It makes me very happy to come into the class [now] and see that they’re enjoying what they’re learning, but also getting a community. We want to build community, but it’s one thing to build it. It’s a different thing to be able to maintain it and have it go outside the classroom.”
One way that Barksdale is thinking about building community is by formalizing the mentorship model that already exists around Career Bridge, as well as the other Carroll School initiatives he oversees, like the Alumni Alliance for Diversity and Inclusion and the Diversity in Business program, which introduces students to career opportunities in industries that lack diversity. “Our upperclassmen and alumni are doing well, and are good mentors and guiding lights,” he says. “Having them come back and talk is very powerful and it reinforces the messages that we’re trying to teach.”
This intentional community is mutually beneficial for students and upperclassmen—many of whom continue to seek Barksdale’s counsel even after they’ve left his classroom. “When you’re in Fulton and you’re in accounting class, you just don’t always see [students of color],” says Ibnaouf, who took Career Bridge as a first-year student. “You have to have a class like Career Bridge gather you all into one place in order to see each other. Drew is someone with a lot of knowledge and it’s really nice to see, not just a person of color, but a Black person in a position where he can help other students of color. He is always a very guiding hand.”
Another benefit of offering Career Bridge to first-year students in particular is the opportunity to have conversations about culture shock happening in real time. “That’s one of the biggest things we talk about,” says Barksdale. “It’s important that we talk about how to navigate that and adapt to a new environment. This isn’t going to be a one-off, this is going to be how life is.”
“These classes have so many assessments throughout the semester—quizzes that make up like 30 percent of your grade—it’s so easy for me to lose sight of the big picture.”
One of the first real cold days of freshman year, Khan remembers seeing students crossing campus bundled up in Canada Goose down jackets and thinking maybe she would get one too. “I thought it was just your average trendy jacket,” she says, laughing—Googling the brand, she quickly realized many of the styles retail for upwards of $1,500. Ibnaouf remembers similar reality checks, seeing her classmates with new Macbook laptops and fancy headphones. “The little things start to pile up,” she says. “There are millions of dollars in difference in how we live—how we grew up. It can be very draining.”
A working laptop has become an essential tool to navigate classes and complete assignments, but Kirwan says when his laptop broke suddenly during the middle of the semester, he became worried about keeping up. “It was a complete nightmare,” he says. After alerting his professors to the situation, he talked to Sara Nunziata, assistant director of undergraduate advising, who was able to get him a new laptop. “I didn’t even know that was a possibility,” he adds. With emergencies like that in mind, the Carroll School created the Leo V. Sullivan Fund, a discretionary fund geared toward management students who belong to Boston College’s Montserrat Coalition, which assists students at the highest level of financial need. That money can help with everything from the purchase of textbooks to business attire ahead of job interviews.
The differences in lived experiences between first generation students and their peers are not always financial—sometimes they’re simply philosophical. Portico, the Carroll School’s signature class for first-year students, acts as a doorway into the concepts of management through an interdisciplinary lens, with lessons on philosophy, ethics, and social sciences woven in. “Morality and business were always intertwined for me,” Ibnaouf says, “and that’s the big thing that they’re trying to teach you in Portico.” When she was growing up, her dad worked a factory job. If he came home injured, she could piece it together that it might be because of inadequate training or poorly maintained equipment. Because many of her classmates hadn’t experienced similar problems, she thinks they weren’t as easily able to see the ethical quandaries surrounding the real-world business dealings they were discussing in class.
Thankfully Ibnaouf was able to see how that understanding of morality and business might help her excel. She was recruited by Barksdale to serve as team captain for a group competing in the 2023 National Diversity Case Competition, hosted by the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. There, her four-person team took on a real-world case concerning American conglomerate 3M’s commitments to environmental justice in communities near the company’s manufacturing plants, ultimately winning third place in the competition. The prize money will help Ibnaouf travel to Singapore for a summer internship with maritime technology company Fredrik Marine.
The relief of securing a job or internship can often go hand-in-hand with a difficult financial reality check. “Last summer, I made more than both of my parents combined,” says Kirwan—his summer internship with J.P. Morgan landed him a full-time role with the company as an analyst. “I feel guilty about making more than them. They work twice as hard, but I think if I was a parent, I would want my kids to be doing the same. That’s how I rationalize it.”
Khan mentions some of the same guilt showing up for her and other first generation friends, “because we feel like our parents deserve more and our friends deserve more.” She adds that after getting into Boston College, she gave presentations at her high school to educate students about the resources available to them. “I just wanted to motivate people to escape this poverty cycle that we’re stuck in.”
Khan pays for her college education in part through participation in a work-study program. Between multiple jobs, she was working 18 hours a week during her freshman year. “Going abroad is actually the first time where I’m not working,” she said, as she embarked on the adventure during spring 2023. “I’ll finally be a normal student who can go home after class.”
A robust study abroad program is something that many students take advantage of during their time at Boston College—36 percent of Carroll School students in the class of 2023 ventured overseas—but financial hardship and limited available scholarships can make this rite of passage feel out of reach for some. “I’ve come so far and was so set on going abroad. I’m going to places my parents would die to see,” says Khan, who selected Dubai, United Arab Emirates, as where she wanted to study during her junior year. She adds that this opportunity wouldn’t have been possible if she had not been accepted into the Fung Scholars Program at Boston College, which specifically supports academic experiences in Asian countries. Khan says that while her days in Dubai were spent studying, she was spending her nights during the holy month of Ramadan exploring new foods when she broke her fast, adding, “It has been heartwarming to feel more comfortable in myself here. I feel more connected to my culture.”
“You might think you’re alone, but you’re really not,” says Kirwan—finding like-minded students helped ease the uncertainty of feeling out of place on the Heights. He got involved with First Generation Club, a student group dedicated to the representation of first generation students at Boston College that hosts events like club mixers, first generation faculty panels, and professional development nights that offer both intellectual engagement and bonding opportunities. Kirwan and Lin both served as club co-presidents during their junior year and Khan currently sits on the executive board.
“I always thought that I was sort of a lone wolf as a person of color in CSOM. Then I met people with similar backgrounds and who were very willing to talk about their experiences. It feels like all of me is there when I’m talking to them.”
Kirwan emphasizes that when first generation students at the Carroll School are able to accomplish their goals, it’s important that they also help other students. “Something my dad instilled in me was the idea of not pulling the ladder up behind you,” he says. “Being able to mentor other people gives me a sense that I belong here.” For him, it was contributing back to the Boston College community that made him really see Boston College as a home.
“What really pushes first gen students is wanting to make the people around you proud and be able to uplift them,” says Ibnaouf. “My parents came to America to a worse-off life in order to start something new for [their] children who hadn’t even been born yet. I just want to make things better, not only for myself, but for others, too—but you still need drive to get through the system. I have to push through it. I’m doing this for a reason.”