Career Threshold | Brunswick
Perspectives

Career Threshold

Marianna Tu, CEO of nonprofit America Needs You, speaks with Brunswick’s Melissa Epstein about helping first-generation university students to successful graduation and employment.

Everyone who has been to college or has had a child in college understands the shock and confusion of the initial years of enrollment. Beyond the academic challenges, you’re suddenly independent, making all kinds of difficult decisions on your own that will affect your future. It’s a stressful adjustment, rife with doubts and misgivings. In the US, only 60 percent of all students who enroll as freshmen actually graduate.

For some, however, the adjustment can be far more difficult. Low-income, first-generation college students have a graduation rate of only 11 percent. Many in good academic standing choose to leave in response to any number of pressures—some common to all college students and some unique to those who are the first generation of their families to attend college. Those challenges can be overcome through the help of someone who understands both the school environment and the world outside of school, and can advise the student on their path toward success.

MT At ANY Gala

CEO Marianna Tu speaks at the 2018 America Needs You Benefit Dinner.

America Needs You is a nonprofit aimed at increasing graduation rates and improving economic mobility for first-generation students by providing one-on-one mentorship, counseling and other services. ANY’s methods work. First-generation students who are fellows of ANY’s programs graduate at a rate of 94 percent, and last year, 82 percent of fellows landed a job or enrolled in graduate school within six months of graduation.

A graduate of Harvard, CEO Marianna Tu is the child of a Chinese immigrant, a professor who came to the US for graduate work. She began her association with ANY as a mentor coach, working one-on-one with a fellow. Tu previously had been the New York Executive Director of health education nonprofit Peer Health Exchange, marshaling college-age volunteers to teach high school students. She came to work fulltime with ANY in 2012 as Vice President of Career Development and moved up through other positions, including COO, before being named CEO in 2018.  

Founded in 2009 by Robert Reffkin, a former appointee to the NYC Workforce Investment Board and two-time appointee to the NYC Board of Education Panel for Educational Policy, ANY began as a service for New York students and has since expanded to include three other states: New Jersey, California and Illinois. And it continues to grow.

We spoke with Marianna about the organization’s work, its relationships with its corporate partners, and what role good mentorship should play in academia and the business world.

What are the challenges that first-generation students might face that would cause them to leave school?
Everyone who starts college intends to finish. Many people who leave are planning on taking just a little bit of time off—but then they don’t go back. That’s often what happens. Many, many students are leaving college in good academic standing, so it’s not just about academic support.

The most common reason I think is immediate financial need or the lack of seeing a strong pathway to economic mobility and career success. There’s a trade-off of spending more time and money, going to school or working this job that’s right here at my fingertips, providing income that’s important to me and my family right now, even though it might not have the longer-term career trajectory or economic mobility.

In college, you never really talk about the connection between what you’re studying and what you might want to do later. In some institutions, it’s actually considered crass. Like, we are here for this learning environment and to talk about how much money you’re going to make is not the point of higher ed. I don’t think it needs to be an either/or.

There’s also a lot of research around the different ways people explain challenge to themselves based on different identity factors or the environment that they’re in. Resilience is how we explain and experience challenges and bounce back from them or not. I don’t think we can just put that on the person. I think companies and higher ed institutions can help normalize and talk about what you do if you’re experiencing a challenge.

ANY has begun operations in three other states besides New York and has a very high success rate: 94 percent of those in your program graduate, compared to 11 percent of first-gen students otherwise. What do you see are the next steps for your organization?
What we’ve seen through replicating to four sites is there is a need for mentorship career development and college support across the country—in rural areas, in urban areas. Connecting the college experience to what you might do after college isn’t as strong as it could be. All cities and higher ed institutions should have mentoring programs and should be talking explicitly about career. And I think ANY can play a part in helping that.

We grew pretty quickly—every two years we basically opened a new site. But a couple of years ago we said, “Let's try to grow more within these current markets and really deepen our relationships.” And that’s been great. Now not only have we served 2,000 students since inception, but instead of having a cohort of 50 students in New York, now we have 350 students.

Having to go to virtual programming this past year as a result of COVID means that we’ve had to develop a virtual curriculum. Right now, we’re in the process of professionalizing that virtual curriculum, making some really strong eLearning modules which we think actually will allow us to access students that aren’t in a current ANY market.

In the end, I think everything is going to end up being hybrid. We say, “Is it in-person or virtual?” I think the world will be hybrid, forever moving forward. But we still have to provide that human connection, through networking events or some other in-person aspects.

What has ramped up a ton though is the personal support piece. It’s been incredibly challenging for everyone, and certainly for our fellows. So we’ve focused on emergency financial assistance and really revving up personal support.

"We have had so many people feel like their own career goals are transformed because of mentoring. I am a CEO of this nonprofit because I was a mentor." -Marianna Tu

What are some of the ways that ANY works with corporations?
We engage employees as volunteers and mentors; we provide access to internships and talent pipelines for fellows, which is so critical for their professional development and their long-term economic mobility; and third, of course, we receive financial support and sustainability. That’s how we run our program. That’s how we pay our staff. That’s how we give professional development grants to students.

The beautiful thing about that is that students aren’t just benefiting from being part of a mentorship program; they’re getting access and exposure to so many different companies. First-generation college students, and probably all college sophomores, have a pretty limited understanding of what the options are for professional work. If you work at a bank, you’re a banker. If you work at a newspaper, you are a columnist. We really need to expand this idea of the different function areas within a company. I can work in finance at a dance company, or I could work in marketing for technology. There is this idea that this type of person works at that type of company, and that’s the person that that company wants. That’s a barrier that starts to collapse when you start talking to people from different functional areas, people who work in talent at some of these firms or things like that.

What are some of the industries and areas that students these days are most interested in, from ANY’s perspective?
So interesting. It’s changing all the time. What we always talk about at ANY is that all of the jobs we’re going to have in 10 to 20 years are actually jobs that don’t exist now at all. The idea of being a social media manager—no one was going to college for that before. So we start from that place.

There’s a lot of interest in technology and software. Students are also looking for ways to think about purpose at work and more work/life integration. I’d say that matters way more than industry.

We also talk about the jobs that we think we’re supposed to get because that’s what our parents like. With first-generation Americans, everyone’s like, OK, doctor, lawyer, engineer. Those are the three that we all start with. The goal of our program is career exposure, to talk about what it would mean to think about corporate communications at a place like Brunswick Group, for example, helping people through real moments of crisis and transition at companies. That’s incredibly exciting for students. But they don’t typically come in saying, “That’s going to be my career.”

Do you think that exposure goes the other way as well, raising corporate awareness?
Absolutely. It’s great to prepare students for what they’ll experience at work, but it’s even more important to think about the environment students are entering and whether it’s one that truly does provide access.

A lot of it actually is through the volunteers. When people volunteer and when they are mentoring first-gen college students, they gain a really strong insight into what questions and obstacles those students have and how to demystify questions. And they bring that back to their companies.

In talking with companies as a nonprofit, we see that people want to change. People want to listen.

What can businesses be doing more to support those who come from different socio-economic backgrounds?
Having an employee mentorship program is one. Having employee resource groups and affinity groups can be really transformative ways for people to build mentors and sponsors. For mentors, by recognizing the expertise you’ve developed and seeing it through someone else’s eyes, you get a little bit more excited about what it is that you do every day—some fresh perspective from someone who might help you think about it. We have had so many people feel like their own career goals are transformed because of mentoring. I am a CEO of this nonprofit because I was a mentor.

Another is the demystifying process. We have a whole workshop just called “Unwritten Rules of Work.” What you do in the beginning is you feel out and you try to figure out what the unwritten rules are. You hear a lot from businesses, “Well, it’s just common courtesy to do X. Or it’s just common sense to do Y.” Common courtesy to whom? Common sense from what cultural context or history? So starting to make some of those things explicit is helpful.

Some companies don’t get it. They are like, “The way we’ll help is we’ll teach people to be like us.” That’s not what I think inclusion and building diversity really means.

Do you see any major generational differences young workers?
Companies and organizations often find themselves asking, “How do we make this next generation meet all of our professional norms?” The older generation always wants to tell the younger generation, “Get over it. Just do it.” I think what we really miss is the real, incredible strengths of this generation of workers in especially data and information. We should be looking at how we can optimize their really unique strengths and the way they process information and the way they can gather and find information from lots of different sources and package it.

There are other differences around expectations from work. People want transparency, communication. People want to be explicit about growth pathways in a way that maybe older generations of workers didn’t feel was necessary. People really like to talk about that personal development piece and have it be really explicit and sometimes written down as part of a plan.

Is there any one fellow story that really stands out to you?
There are so many. My own fellow, Anibelky, she’s really incredible. When we met, she was at community college. She is now at the end of her time at medical school. She’s also been very, very active in inclusion and the social determinants of health, while she’s studying a lot biomedical research. She did a fellowship this year around getting access to treatment, resources, and materials to Spanish speaking people who were experiencing COVID symptoms.

Another alumna who went into tech became part of the founding team to launch inclusion initiatives at her company. And then she came back and has volunteered with ANY. She’s helped build a corporate partnership pipeline for other interns. I remember one thing she said was, “The experience I had entering tech is not the experience I want anyone else to have. So I’m going to change it.”

MT Field Day

Marianna Tu pictured at the ANY field day event.

Before you came to ANY, you were working at a national nonprofit. Was the nonprofit world always your target?
When I was a senior in college, I was deciding whether to teach English in China, work for a software startup, or go into fundraising consulting. So I went into fundraising consulting. I knew I wanted to do social-impact work, but what sector, I wasn’t sure. I had a great mentor who said, “You should really think less about sector and more about what skills you want to develop.” In retrospect, it makes so much sense. I was doing volunteering programs. I love nonprofit work. I wanted to do mission-driven work.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be either a Broadway star or a UN ambassador. I had someone ask me when I was running a training, “Where did you learn public speaking?” And the answer is high school theater. There are ways to bring the things you think of as totally non-career related back into your career.

You worked in China for a while. Does that international background benefit you in your work now?
I did. My father is Chinese. My brother lived in Hong Kong for about a decade. I taught English in China for two summers. And I was part of a pediatric AIDS treatment support group there. That all started in undergrad. I was part of an entirely student-led nonprofit called Learning Enterprises. So even as undergraduates, we were teaching, training other teachers.

I do think the experience of travel is important. It gives you perspective in particular on, again, this theme of understanding unwritten rules. Like, what are the norms? How do you sit around a dinner table? How do you hand a business card to someone with two hands and study it first versus slip it into your pocket slowly? All of these things are very different culturally.

In the “Unwritten Rules of Work” workshop we ask, “Is it professional to hold hands with a colleague or a partner in work?” And the answer is, “No, of course not.” But then we'll show an image of two heads of state holding hands. Because maybe in some countries it might be more common.

I really believe in the value of tradition. But you also see that it’s arbitrary and can be very, very different. What one person considers respectful, someone else finds offensive.

Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you would like to bring up?
In talking with companies as a nonprofit, we see that people want to change. People want to listen. For the first time, our corporate partners are saying, “Not only do we want internship applications, but we want to have a conversation about what should supervisors know when interns are coming in. Or what are strategies that build in inclusion—or that create a sense of exclusion—that we should be aware of?” So I think there’s an opportunity. I hope it’s not something that’s just going to happen for this week or this year, but actually becomes a little bit more part of culture.

I think the door could be pushed wide open in a different way. Not, how do you open the door? But how do you take the door off its hinges?

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Melissa Epstein is a Brunswick Director and a founding member of the firm’s Chicago office. She is also a former America Needs You volunteer mentor coach.

Photographs courtesy of America Needs You.