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How (Not) to Find a Job

Lessons from a zero-gen student's failures.

Key points

  • Many zero-gen students experience a U.S. job market that is marred with nepotism.
  • They have precarious visa situations for which they face negative discriminations.
  • They need to adopt new strategies and connect with like-minded professionals to find the right job.

Mohammed has been applying for jobs repeatedly but nothing turned up for him. He has submitted applications to endless portals yet his response rate is embarrassingly low. The few interviewers he met with were put off by his inexperience. He could not market for himself in a modern way. He is too modest to brag about his achievements, an attitude prospective employers interpret as a serious deficit. Mohammed became greatly distressed as he has a limited amount of time to find a job, or facing being deported from the U.S. back to Yemen.

Mohammed is not only a first-gen student but also a zero-gen student who is struggling to acquire a new language and acclimate to a new culture. When I met with him, he was confused, upset, and hopeless. He was confused because he has no guidance from mentors. He is navigating the process of job applications alone. He does not know how to compete in the U.S. job market.

Mohammed is upset because the system is not fair to him. It does not reward his extensive education credentials. He is a graduate of an Ivy League university yet many employers overlook that fact. Mohammed learned that an Ivy League degree does not confer similar privileges on all of its graduates. He has other intersecting identities that interfere with experience.

He is hopeless because after repeated attempts, he almost decided to quit and find a job that does not require higher education at all. He is hopeless because he has tried everything he knows yet his efforts have only been met with failure. When I spoke with him, he was devastated and humiliated. He was full of rage because the system cannot appreciate his talent. He is smart as hell, funny as hell, and creative as hell—yet prospective employers could not see his talents. They perhaps see only an insignificant collection of molecules unable to function in a fiercely competitive, capitalistic society. Mohammed falsely presumed that the U.S. job market was a meritocracy but he learned the hard way that it is not what you know but rather who you know. This is true even—or especially—in the ivory towers where Mohammed received his education.

Mohammed contacted leaders and professors to decipher his experience, and although they sympathized and empathized with his predicament, they did not offer any concrete help, perhaps because they did not perceive their job to be his coaches. They told him to try again and wished him well. Mohammed appreciated their polite unhelpfulness, but he was looking for concrete steps to get himself out of a perpetual state of unemployment. His concern is not just to earn money but also to avoid deportation to a country—Yemen—that is currently suffering the worst humanitarian crisis in its modern history. The stakes are high for him.

Recently, Mohammed realized that to get a job, he needs to learn the art and science of networking. He needs to connect with like-minded professionals and join their social circles because that is how opportunities get circulated. Mohammed was determined to reconnect with his old colleagues and to forge new connections. He soon learned, though, that people connect over “shared values or experiences” and as a foreign student he does not have much in common with his potential networks. His comments are often regarded as “irrelevant” and his approach is often received as “awkward.”

Mohammed completely shifted his approach to hunting for jobs. He realized that people make the decisions to hire, so he is now learning the art of connecting with people in a new culture and language. He realizes that this process will take time but he is glad that he found the right diagnosis to his problem. Mohammed decided that he would no longer submit application dossiers to portals indiscriminately because that is a waste of his time. He is going to instead invest in cultivating a strong network with like-minded professionals.


Although Mohammed's story is unique, I think we can learn a few lessons. The industrious world is not fair. It is linked to a social distribution of resources in which people help and connect with those who resemble them most. The system is marred by nepotism; it is not a meritocracy. Current practices in job distribution are confusing and need to be reassessed. In a capitalistic culture, merit should trump everything else, but these arrangements facilitate jobs for one group of people, while excluding others. Unfair distribution of opportunities in a society is a sign of sickness.

But Mohammed also needs to reframe his strategy. He is no longer looking for a job for the sake of finding work. Instead, he is thinking of how his experience and expertise can support the mission of the organizations in which he is interested. In other words, he is now thinking of how he can help those with whom he hopes to work. It is a mental shift indeed. With this cognitive reframing, he is getting more interviews and he hopes to land his first job in the U.S.

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