Earning a college degree can be difficult – let alone if you’re the first one in your family to do so. If you can relate to being the first one in your family to graduate from college, you could be considered a first-generation (first-gen) college student. While there are different definitions and criteria regarding who can be considered a first-generation college student, according to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, “being a first-gen student means that your parents did not complete a 4-year college or university degree” and as a result, this can lead to challenges as students “navigate the tangled web of college policies, procedures, jargon.” Not only do fifty percent of students identify as first-gen, but sixty-six percent of first-gen students are also employed while attending university full-time. With these statistics, one can only imagine how challenging this experience can be.
Rene R. recently transitioned into his new role as a Financial Consultant and his experience as a first-generation college student spanned the course of 7 years including working at Schwab full-time when he was not attending night class. Starting shifts as early as 5 am at Schwab and getting home late after finishing class, I was able to speak with Rene about how he balanced work and education, his experience as a first-gen student, and how Schwab and his team supported him every step of the way.
A Passion for Finance
Rene’s passion for finance started when he was younger. His parents are first-generation immigrants and “when they came over to the United States, they had no idea what finance was, what credit cards or checking accounts were.” As Rene started high school, he mentioned that he started to dabble into finance as he remembered seeing his parents struggle and not know anything finance-related while he was growing up.
At age 18, Rene continued his passion for finance by landing his first job at a bank: “I was a bank teller where I learned basic finance stuff like checking, savings, credit cards, and I was there for a couple of years. Then I transitioned to Schwab because I wanted to further my knowledge.” Rene explained that working at Schwab was actually recommended to him by his previous manager and they told him, “Schwab is a good company. They’re going to teach you more about finance and you’ll get licensed – you probably should continue your search there.” As Rene started his new career at Schwab to further his education, he initially started in Retirement Plan Services (RPS) and described how his parents, “didn’t have a 401k. They didn’t know what an IRA was, and I had no idea what that was either since no one was teaching me about those things. I wanted to learn more, prepare for retirement, and save for the future – so that’s where I started and I had a great experience as I could teach my parents and family members that weren’t familiar with retirement.”
When Rene first started at Schwab, he recalled a moment where everyone on his team went around introducing themselves and he felt like an outlier as he didn’t have a degree yet: “We were going around introducing ourselves and everybody was saying, ‘I just graduated from this school, with this degree.’ I’m pretty sure I was the only one in the room that didn’t have a degree at that moment so I kind of felt like an outlier for a little bit. I decided that I wanted to get my degree so that I can have that experience, maintain my job, and I could build my experience while working.”
With Rene’s decision to pursue his college degree while working at Schwab, he described the struggles he faced and how he navigated going to school as a first-gen student: “It was definitely hard. All my classes were in the evening, so I didn’t get home till 9 or 10 pm. For the first couple years before COVID, I was always on the go, I always had lunch on me, and I would go to school in a suit since I just came from work. People would stare at me like ‘who’s this guy in the back of the room wearing a suit?’ But I also think it was more inspirational to students as they would ask, ‘Where do you work? Why are you in a suit?’ and I would tell them, ‘This is where I work, this is what I do’ and I would always guide them and show them some of the tools available to them.”
Schwab's Supportive Culture
Not only did Rene impact the lives of his fellow peers in school, but he also helped his brothers (one of which is Rene’s twin) start their own journey to achieve higher education and begin their career at Schwab: “I want to pave a path for my other brothers who are at Schwab as well, but also to my friends and family members who don't know if going to school is the right thing, or don't understand how to go about doing it. I want to lead by example. Since I started working at Schwab, my two other brothers started working here too and they have also enrolled in school. They're now going to school where they weren't before because they see there's value in receiving education.”
As Rene helped provide support to his fellow peers, Schwab was also able to do the same for him. “Aside from my family and friends, my colleagues and my managers played a huge part in my success in school because they were also flexible with my schedule. I had a custom-built schedule just for me that had to be approved by a director so I could attend school and be able to make it to class in time.” Rene also mentioned that he used Schwab’s tuition reimbursement program that was also a huge help. In addition, Rene also leaned on Schwab’s Employee Resource Groups, SOL (Schwab’s Organization of Latinxs), which allowed him to “feel like I’m part of something bigger and keep me motivated. I get to speak with people who are in the same industry as me and share my story. As a Latinx individual in the workplace, they’ve made me realize the importance of giving back, teaching, and educating people.”
Through the support of his personal and professional confidants, Rene graduated with his bachelor’s degree this past May and I was curious to hear what his future career goals are. Rene stated his next goal is, “to get my Certified Financial Planner designation (a professional certification from the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc.), which one of the requirements was to have a bachelor's degree so that that was kind of in line and one of the reasons why I wanted to get it so I can further my career here at Schwab. Eventually, I want to become a financial consultant and be able to help clients with their personal finance and help them achieve their goals and dreams.”
Advice for First-Generation Students
For any individual who identifies as a first-generation college student or who has struggled with finishing education, Rene offered his words of advice on how to push through the tough times and accomplish your goals: “Anything is possible. You just have to put your mind to it, put the work in, and then eventually things will come to fruition. My biggest piece of advice is to have an advisor to work with at school that will keep you motivated and keep you on track of where your goals are going because that was my mistake -- I didn't have an advisor. I could have made seven years into a four-year degree if I would have. I was first-generation, so I didn't know what to do, I didn't know who to ask for help or know where to start, but that's all right, everything was worth it. It's all a learning experience even when you're in school because I was already working at Schwab and already had my licenses, I was already a registered representative. I thought to myself, ‘why would I want to get a finance degree if I already am in finance?’ But then I sat down and thought, ‘wait, there are always things to learn,’ and I'm glad I stuck with it because I learned so much from finance that I didn't think was even out there. I met a lot of good friends and a lot of good people who have made an impact in my life.”
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