When Brian Weinstein and Jessica Pliska started The Opportunity Network a decade ago, they imagined helping low-income teens plan their futures. Today hundreds of low-income, first-generation students have graduated from top universities and launched professional careers thanks to OppNet. Now, Daniel Craig is participating in a fundraiser for them, and the organization is poised to soar even higher. We spoke with the founders Brian and Jessica to learn more about the unique barriers facing first-generation college students.
ATTN: You started OppNet to help low-income students succeed. What is holding them back?
BW: Four out of five people find jobs through people they know, so if you don’t already have connections, you don’t have a chance. In comparison, I was able to access a powerful web of connections after college, because I knew how to tap into the alumni network. A decade later, I was able to switch careers, move from the East Coast to the West Coast, and still access these connections. Without networks of their own and without an understanding of how to build and use social capital, low-income students often can’t get through the door.
JP: The gap starts early. Mid- and higher-income students spend years immersed in career conversations around the dinner table and exposed to professional norms at parents’ offices. Low-income students never get those opportunities. This leaves many of our talented young people stranded on the wrong side of the opportunity gap: unemployed or just getting by in low-wage, part-time jobs. We need to change the game.
ATTN: What is the college experience like for a first generation, low-income student?
JP: Most people think getting into college is the hard part, but it’s only half the battle. Even our highest achieving students are graduating high school without the tools to excel in a college environment that is dramatically different from anything they have experienced. Imagine your freshman literature class is reading the Odyssey. You have never seen it before but your classmates read it in ninth grade. You’ve fallen behind before you even started.
ATTN: Why is it harder for low-income, first generation students to find jobs, even with advanced degrees?
BW: Employers are looking to hire graduates who already have relevant work experience, and this means that internships are more important than ever. This emphasis puts low-income students at an even greater disadvantage, because they are less likely to have the luxury of being able to spend a summer doing an unpaid internship and they are less likely to have the connections that are a prerequisite for the most prestigious internships.
JP: There is a whole set of skills, which I call career fluency, that young people need to succeed. They need to know how to market themselves, how to build social capital, how to interact in professional environments. Nobody teaches these skills—if you aren’t exposed to them growing up, you are out of luck. The Opportunity Network has created a career fluency curriculum to level the playing field for low-income students.
ATTN: What do these young people need to start climbing the economic ladder?
JP: The young people I work with are motivated, industrious, and eager to climb on their own up the economic ladder. They just need someone to show them where the ladder is.
BW: If each of your readers finds a way to open a door for a young person looking for a way in, we will be making a difference. This might mean recruiting new employees from non-traditional places, opening internship programs to more diverse applicants or doing informational interviews at your local high school.
ATTN: What’s next for OppNet?
BW: We are expanding to reach thousands more young people in New York City and beyond, and we are raising awareness nationally of the importance of career fluency to level the playing field. We are thrilled to be able to fund our growth thanks to supporters like Daniel Craig, Sony, Eon, OMEGA and Aston Martin who are offering The Ultimate James Bond Experience. We are poised to grow exponentially, and that means more opportunities for many more young people.
Donate $10 or more to our friends at The Opportunity Network and you could win a trip to London to meet Daniel Craig and walk the red carpet at the world premiere of Spectre. ENTER HERE.