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By Hilda Nalwanga, Talent Development Enthusiast affiliated to the African Leadership Academy

A few months ago, a photograph of a Ugandan boy reporting to Makerere University for the new academic year showed up on the internet. He is pictured walking toward one of the boys’ residence halls carrying a metallic suitcase and a “Ghana Must Go” bag – both of which, indicators of his significantly low socioeconomic status. Ugandan twitter did its research, and shortly after, we knew that the boy in the photo, Ssuubi, comes from a family of 8 supported by a single mother who is neither educated nor has a stable source of income. But today, a beneficiary of a full government scholarship, Ssuubi is pictured on his way to fulfill one of his and his parents’ wildest dreams.
For students like Ssuubi and their parents who have not gone to school, education is synonymous with the end of poverty and all its related problems. It’s seen as that shiny guarantee for a good job with which they will be able to provide for their extended families and become the catalysts to end generational poverty. For most low-income students who are also the first in their families to attain an education however, the story doesn’t exactly pan out this way as most of them graduate college into a job market that seeks to reward all the aspects that they still lack, despite their college degrees.

Just like Ssuubi, many low-income first-generation students have successfully got through the door into higher education institutions. They however inevitably meet in college what Anthony Jack, in his TedTalk “On Diversity: Access Ain’t Inclusion,” calls the hidden curriculum. And while this curriculum is a great enabler of students’ smooth transitions from college into the world of work, it comes in forms that are not easily accessible to students whose parents haven’t had the college experience. These forms include networks that increase one’s ability to secure internship opportunities, career guidance and close role models, most of which are aspects that low-income first-generation students do not necessarily have access to.

These students’ lonesome journey – symbolized by Ssuubi’s unchaperoned walk to his dorm room – is made even more solitary by most schools’ lack of prioritization of career counseling and support. This is the case for many universities in post-colonial African economies; which means that in general, the students get very limited institutionalized support regardless of economic status. So while parents with college degrees are then able to guide their children through the hidden curriculum by providing not only the guidance but also the networks to enable them acquire substantive internship opportunities, many low-income first-generation students graduate college with completely no guidance, into a job market that rewards both skills and networks that they do not have access to. This affects their ability to enter similar careers as their peers whose parents attained college degrees and have the knowledge and networks to support them through college.

This lack of support contributes to the cycle of limited access to career opportunities despite having college degrees, leading low-income first-generation students to graduate college into lower-income and bluer-collar jobs than their peers whose parents earn higher incomes and have college degrees. Despite the fact that many of these students are able to access education and in many cases, even graduate with excellent grades, the generational poverty does not necessarily come to an end, especially as smart and educated young people start to live as hand-to-mouth as their parents before them.

This article has been reposted with permission from the author.

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