This story is part of QnotesCarolinas’ special project “OUTlook: Finding Solutions for LGBTQ Labor and Workplace Equality." It is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.
To learn more about solutions journalism, visit solutionsjournalism.org.
Kevin Hu’s family moved from rural China to the United States in hopes of a better future when he was only three years old. “We were tired of being poor,” said Hu in a recent Zoom conversation.
After high school, Kevin, the oldest son in his family went to the University of California at Irvine. After graduation, he got a job in consulting and was doing pretty well.
“Consultants make a lot of money,” says Hu. His salary had already exceeded that of his entire family’s household income. In a matter of just a few years, he had been promoted twice.
“I was making so much money and more money than I knew what to do with – more money than I thought I’d ever be making growing up.”
Hu said that at the time he could have seen himself staying at the company for years to come, possibly until retirement. A great life lay ahead, but the complacency scared him, and he felt somewhat guilty about his success.
“My mom and dad are mostly in the same financial situation as like 10-20 years ago when we moved to the States.”
Only 10 percent of low-income, first-generation college students actually graduate on time. According to EAB, a college research group formerly known as the Education Advisory Board, that percentage is within six years, and part of the problem is that “these students are likely unfamiliar with the ‘hidden curriculum’ that determines students’ success in their first year of college, which includes navigating higher education bureaucracy and practicing good study skills.”
In college, Hu had noticed that other first-generation students around him weren’t doing as well as he was. “I know they’re smart, they’re a lot smarter than I am. But for some, they didn’t get the same educational outcomes from higher education.”
For Hu, mentorship made a big difference.
A 2011 study of more than 13,000 college-student records found that students who used mentoring and coaching services were 10 to 15 percent more likely to go on to another year of college. It’s something that Hu said helped him succeed.
While not yet out of the closet, Hu was dealing with multiple overlapping elements of his identity that set him apart from other students. As a first-generation, Asian American, queer student he was facing some major challenges, but on top of it all, he didn’t have the financial means that others at UC Irvine came to campus with.
“The students who need the most support – your first-generation students are low income, they’re the ones that aren’t getting the outcomes from it. At the same time, they’re paying as much tuition as everyone else.” Hu acknowledges that federal student grant programs help but says that there is clearly a gap. If it weren’t for government programs like the Pell Grant, for instance, financially he wouldn’t have been able to afford college at all.
Despite the grant and the benefits of in-state tuition, Hu still had to take out loans. He worked 15 to 20 hours a week, driving 30 minutes to and from an internship out of town that aligned with his studies and career goals. Here is this full-time, hard-working student taking a full load of classes and working during his free time, all the while trying to cut costs at every step of the way. It was a lot – and it impacted him academically and physically.
“I wasn’t taking care of my body. I was very thin.” Hu says his diet consisted primarily of peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and Instant Ramen.
Step toward entrepreneurship
With newly found success following graduation, Hu started thinking about ways that he could help others who were in similar situations in college. “What am I doing to help my community and the people who need this kind of support?” asked Hu.
He applied and was admitted to the University of California Haas MBA program on a full tuition scholarship and his path toward entrepreneurship was starting to take place.
There were even fewer first-generation students in the MBA program though. Just participating in the culture surrounding grad school, Hu dipped into his savings to keep from being an outcast again among the students who were more financially better off. All of this led to launching Firstly, a mentorship platform with the goal of accelerating social capital for better career success. The company is designed to increase student retention and job placement rates.
According to Hu, the project focuses a lot on psychological safety as a foundation for mentorships. Its program model addresses four of six social determinants of learning to empower college students and professionals from all backgrounds.
When Hu was in undergrad, he had two good mentors. “My mentor, Andrew, just checked up on me all throughout college, he made sure that I was okay.” It wasn’t just about academics either. It was also a personal check-in. His mentor also honed in on what it was like coming from a low-income family.
Hu joined an Asian-American fraternity when he was at school. A lot of his fellow frat brothers came from more affluent families. “They would always go out and spend a lot of money on food, on drinks, on you know these music shows, and I just pretended that I didn’t want to join them or didn’t want to go because I didn’t want to deal with the shame or embarrassment of admitting that I do want to go, I just can’t afford this right now, you know, given my situation.”
Hu spent a lot of time hiding himself from others.
“I believed that I needed to hide my socioeconomic status, because I believed that if people knew how poor I was, they wouldn’t want to be friends with me.” It was a heavy weight to bear throughout college.
According to EAB, first generation students make up nearly a third of U.S. undergraduates and they need more than financial support. Some may not even know they’re first-generation. “Many first-generation students simply do not know where to turn for help, even when colleges have a wealth of resources available.
Firstly helps to create pathways to those resources.
The organization’s goals include:
- Quality education: Complement learning with real-life experience
- Decent work and economic growth: Increase student persistence and job placement
- Reduced inequalities: Socioeconomic inclusion in college and career
It’s a small team, with Hu launching initiatives including their primary peer-to-peer program, where the Firstly staff work with a college partner to recruit students who are underclassmen as mentees and students who are upperclassmen to serve as mentors. Other members of the team include Stacey Li who was previously the COO of a career coaching startup and Cory Baig, who previously worked at an HR-tech startup and founded a resource group for LGBTQ and allied staff. Hu’s brother helps with coding the online platform.
Firstly currently has partnerships with UC Irvine, Cal State East Bay, Chaminade University of Honolulu and Williams Patterson University, in addition to nonprofit organizations and employers in states across the country. According to their website, students at Firstly already report a 75 percent job placement rate and 54 percent increase in confidence.
“We found that peer to peer learning is really helpful in building that sense of belonging and building a student’s confidence so that later on they engage with more campus resources,” says Hu. This is especially important for first gen students who Hu said are often existing like him, hiding their socio-economic status and struggling with loneliness. The program isn’t specifically for LGBTQ students, but Hu’s experience plays a major role in his perspective when designing the program.
“Just being queer and low income, and Asian, it’s obviously a lot to balance and figure out.” When he got into the MBA program at Haas, he found a supportive environment that allowed him to come to terms with his queer identity and he was empowered by other students to share his story.
“But, you know, all throughout college, I wasn’t concerned as much about my queer identity. The immediate need was being first gen and low income and how I had to eat to survive and find a way to balance college with working and eating and all that.” All of this has given him time to process the multiple aspects of his identity. He hopes that as Firstly grows, it can also look at ways to specifically support LGBTQ students who are facing issues of socio-economic disparity. Hu hopes that LGBTQ campus centers will see how they can pull in Firstly to help this community of students, even though they as a whole may not be first generation students. “We’ve developed this framework from the lens of socio-economic inclusion, but that applies to all of your other students too,” says Hu. “It is just the common denominator of unmet needs.”
Launching a solution
Even though Hu found success quickly as a consultant, entrepreneurship has brought back some of those earlier financial challenges. He’s had to move back in with his parents and has been pitching the Firstly idea to investors in what’s referred to as a “pre-seed round” to get the company off the ground. “It feels like a step back. But, you know, I think it’s important,” says Hu.
He’s not sure others in his position would make a similar decision. “To grow up poor, and then start a career and have money and then want to revert back to that phase is, it’s tough.”
It’s an important problem for what Hu sees as his community. “And I feel like if I don’t seize this moment, it’s fleeting. When am I going to have this opportunity to create revenue generating social impact and social change?” he says. “I can’t miss out on that opportunity, not just for the money but what this can mean for other students like me, other students who grew up hungry, who grew up poor, and who had such a hard time fitting in the rigorous academic and career environments they’ve broken into.”
For many new students, college and the next steps toward a career can be daunting, but with Hu’s plan there might be a network of support that increases opportunity for economic mobility among first-generation communities.