How do I survive Wall Street as a 1st generation college student?

For context, I'm a first generation college student that grew up on food stamps and government assistance, "raised" by a single drug addicted parent. I was fortunate enough to have some positive intervention / influence in my life, and decided I wanted a better life for myself. I have done everything "right"; I worked hard in school, got into a good program, got good grades, networked, etc. and finally made it into a top group at a top bank on Wall Street, but the one thing that I wasn't prepared for was the culture shock.

New York is very different than anything I'm used to. I'm told I'm personable and think that I do a good job of fitting in, but internally, it's extremely hard for me to relate to the people I work with. A lot of them went to prep schools, summer is a verb (as in where do you summer), there's lots of condescension, elitism, nepotism, and so on. People spend hundreds, if not thousands, on suits, watches, bottle service and the like. I find the work interesting and intellectually stimulating, but how can I bridge the gap between my coworkers and I? I feel as if my drive for everything I do comes from a completely different place than most everybody I interact with.

I don't bring this up to disparage anybody from well to do backgrounds, and it's not my intent to come off as pejorative in any way. In fact, I think it's unreasonable to expect most of the people I work with to understand where I come from, much in the same way I believe it's unreasonable to expect me to understand where they come from.

I'm simply just struggling to find a place for myself within this field.. and wondering if anybody here may have any input--whether it's making a similar journey yourself, or your perspective as somebody that comes from a different background, any insight or advice would be much appreciated.

Comments (15)

Aug 25, 2018 - 9:13pm

It doesn't seem like there's a problem here. I don't think the "bridge" between you and your coworkers exists, except in your perception. They were raised in wealthier households and are comfortable talking/bragging/living that lifestyle for themselves, while you were not and have an awesome story about it.

I was raised in a very "middle" income household, and come from an very mediocre area. When I got to college, a lot of my classmates were from prep schools and old money. But I didn't give a shit. Every person is an individual, and I treated them as such.

If you don't like going out with your coworkers, then don't. Simple as that. But don't condescend how they live their lives and how they approach things. We all - to some extent - embrace elitism and nepotism. Just look past it.

At some point I think you'll have to shed your label as a first gen student, and step into your role as a banker. That's not saying you need to change your person, just change what your story is. You're not the first gen kid who is out of place. You're the hardworking analyst who is killing it, and is aiming for (fill in the blank)

Aug 25, 2018 - 10:42pm

First generation college student here that grew up upper middle class (for where I was from) but I still find a prodigious disconnect between me and my coworkers for all you mentioned.

Do your best to fit in but never lose your sense of who you truly are.

You are not your co-workers, you will have never summered in the Hamptons with Paige Moelis, you won't be able to talk about your trips with the boys to Cancun and Ibiza, you won't be at Lavo getting bottle service with Clark who's dad is a PM at Point 72 and you won't be rocking AP royal oaks to the office.

You are you and that's what makes you special.

No need to fit in too hard, just don't be weird and don't be an outcast... that's how I look at it and I'm well respected by my peers.

Hey, and if you feel like you don't fit in and your group treats you like a bit of an outsider, then they are just a$$holes, which should provide you with further fuel to go buy side or move onto the bigger and better step ASAP.

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Aug 26, 2018 - 1:10am

Completely agreed. I'm first generation as well.

Code switching is big. The way I talk normally is different than the way I talk at work, my vocab is different, my accent is different. But I also provide value by offering a completely different perspective. Sure, I've never worn Peter Millar to a golf course, but I know all of the trends that are happening at the bottom half of the economic spread better than any research analyst because I've lived it. I remember the first time I took some coworkers to an ethnic restaurant located inside of a bodega - florescent lights, plastic chairs, plastic tables, and food that made them go "holy shit, this is awesome." I'm not a Dorsia guy, I'm a "Taqueria Supermercado Internacional #2" guy, and that is an advantage I bring to the team.

Also, at the end of the day, bankers are people. Assholes, contrary to popular belief, don't last too long at most banks - nobody wants to work with them. Anyone who doesn't recognize your differences as a strength can go fuck themselves.

Aug 25, 2018 - 11:37pm

Same situation here except the single household part -- I was just a summer analyst so I didn't feel the full extent of social differences but do understand where you are coming from. Hope to hear good advice as given above, appreciate it all.

Aug 26, 2018 - 1:37am

Heck, I feel this way to some extent and my family was nearly in the vaunted 1% by the time I was a teenager. Because the income distribution follows a power law, almost everyone at the top end of the will know a few people 10x+ or 100x+ wealthier than them. The many people in banking whose families are not super elite but merely well off probably have extended family in situations not dissimilar to your own. They might be more sympathetic than you'd expect. For example, my parents were first generation college students, and my extended family includes felons, addicts, high school dropouts and just regular working class people.

Aug 29, 2018 - 5:49am

Different strokes for different folks. Does the reason you're doing what you're doing matter as much as your ability (or inability) to pal around with your colleagues and enjoy working with them?

Consider that you're being too "in your head" about this. If so, perhaps it's time to lighten the chip on your shoulder a bit?

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Aug 29, 2018 - 6:18am

Congrats on coming this far, I seriously respect that and wish you well. I wouldn't think about it all, people who talk over their 'lifestyle' which is just their parent's success are cancerous as far as I'm concerned. Don't worry about it, just be able to talk a little about sports perhaps and the markets and I think you'll stand out way more than any of the guys who carry on about deal sleds or their parents holiday house 247. I back you man. Its all perception and have a real fuck them attitude and you'll be good as gold.

Aug 29, 2018 - 9:12am

Props on the hustle, and congrats on the great job.

I'm a first generation "immigrant" who grew up in a developing country in a very middle-class family. Suffice to say I was extremely far removed from the finance lifestyle until I started working. With that background, I have a somewhat different suggestion from everyone else here - make yourself interesting.

I'm saying this because merely killing it on the job and joining in on the occasional sports discussion may not be enough for you to bond with colleagues your age (as I found). For them, their "interesting" thing is where they summered, what watch they bought, and so on. Since you (and I) can't do that (yet), do something else interesting enough that piques their curiosity and gives you a ton of stories to tell. It could be anything - brofessor surfs, a bunch of users on here are into MMA, and don't even get me started on old Uncle Eddie (whatever happened to him?).

You don't have to have something like this, you can still fit in through different means. In my personal observations, having something like this just makes it easier while shooting the shit. Just to be sure, by "fitting in" I don't mean cozying up. I simply mean being able to connect with and bond with your peers.

Lastly, it's ok to feel like this - it's natural. Fortunately, it's not too difficult to come over it either. You just gotta find which of these many pieces of advice work best for you. Good luck!

Move along, nothing to see here.
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Aug 29, 2018 - 10:00am

The major thing is you're there now and have opportunities to "level the playing field" so to speak with your work ability. Yes, you may get passed over for certain things because of not being someone's nephew or their golf buddy's kid, but everyone knows who that person is and knows why they are where they are.

Also, you don't have to be best friends with your coworkers, just liked enough for them to give you a reference if you need it later. Or, if you need them to make a connection to someone in their network with a "I know X, he's dependable and does good work." Just make sure to keep the bonds with your actual friends and family intact. Those are the people you're gonna call at midnight when you feel like it's not worth it, everything sucks, or you just don't think you can push longer because of impostor syndrome.

"Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there" - Will Rogers
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Aug 29, 2018 - 10:14am

I'd like to say this thread is great. I come from a similar situation just a different country, and I'm trying to break into wall street. I've definitely seen and experienced all the attributes you've detailed within my first year of college. Knowing there are differences in backgrounds is comforting, but as many guys said on here you should really do you and just stay on a friendly basis with your coworkers, they'll probably respect that.

Aug 29, 2018 - 11:40am

This is interesting. I laughed at "summer is a verb". Yes, this is the culture clash people don't acknowledge. It's the one of the traditionally poor background and the traditionally rich (whether your parents are still/actually rich or not is completely beside the point). Even if your parents somehow grew into fortune, it still wouldn't change much in terms of how you're able to interact with people you're probably surrounded by.

I know, because I had a similar situation. My parents were very poor, until my dad decided to get his shit together. We ended up lower middle class, but I still had very bad culture versus some of my peers I met later on down the road.

I'm going to keep this simple. Use your new status/position to focus on what makes you happy. If you're working IB hours, that might be tough. But, ideally, you should just not be afraid to be more internal and find things that you like. When socializing, it will help you bridge the gap. There's going to be no point in trying to keep up with them. The real ones will want to be friends with you as I'm sure you'll be much more humble and genuine. People who want to hangout with you despite the differences and lack of a social face are the only friends you want.

That's all I've found that helps me in this world. It's going to be a slight disadvantage because more people will have a face instead of being genuine, so it won't be like being a real person helps (people tend to like what they know and identify with). But, don't bite the urge to compromise who you really are. Don't be quick to offer up information on yourself, but make friends with real people that show interest. You need people in your corner to advance in life, but unfortunately for you that might not be a lot. Still don't change, and the real ones will come.

Aug 29, 2018 - 1:29pm

Kudos to you for breaking out of the cycle.

Can't really relate to your story, but I would say that this matters less than you think. Sure, you may not have summered at the Hamptons or gone to Ushuaia for spring break, but who cares? The majority of assholes that are adamant about the social hierarchy rarely have meaningful careers in finance or any industry for that matter.

You have a new job and can live a different lifestyle now. Why not indulge in some bottle service or travelling with some of your new colleagues and see what it's like?

I don't know... Yeah. Almost definitely yes.

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Aug 29, 2018 - 2:00pm

There's a lot of good advice in this tread, but it all comes down to you just being you. Most of your colleagues will appreciate that you've gotten to where you are without the benefits that they had. All of the superficial stuff about summering and watches is nonsense anyways. It has zero impact on your career advancement or work relationships. Don't worry about it.

I grew up on a farm in central Illinois. My summers were spent in the fields. I didn't/don't wear watches. Work ended when it got dark out. My family wasn't poor, but most of the people we knew were. In college and early in my career I was self deprecating about it. Things like "that's awesome that your family spent the summers in Martha's Vineyard...I was riding a tractor at the time." It sounds dumb, but just embrace who you are and don't try to compete with it. I'm sure that plenty of people over the years thought I was some sort of weird hick, but it's never hurt me career wise. Also, Wall St is diverse enough that you can carve out a great social group regardless of where you come from.

While I was an analyst I had a roommate who grew up in abject poverty on the South Side of Chicago, dangerous housing projects, single mom, etc., and he got a football scholarship to attend UIUC. He decided to join the richest/predominantly white fraternity (he's black) because he figured that if he spent time around the rich white kids, he might learn something about being successful. I'm sure it was hard at times, but he always had a smile on his face (we met in college). He ended up as an IB analyst at a BB, got a top MBA and is now in VC.

We used to talk all the time about how different where each of us came from was versus where we were at the time in NYC. I think the conclusion that we both came to is to just ignore the nonsense social hierarchy BS. Did we ever go party in the Hamptons? Sure. Was it something that defined either of us? Never.

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Aug 29, 2018 - 3:44pm

Kudos to all you've accomplished thus far, no mean feat, I suspect that you will always hustle and land on top. Struggling to fit in is always a challenge in life and it won't necessarily go away or cease as you get older. But it's your perception and perspective that will evolve with time, as will your comfort level in being yourself and being in your own skin.

When my parents came to the U.S., neither spoke much English. My father came from a communist country and my mother came from a dictatorship. My mom as a child, along with my grandmother and my uncle were homeless from time to time. My father left school at the age of 12 to help support himself and his mother. My folks went to night school to learn English. My dad made a living as a repairman. They busted their asses and bought a house in the Bronx. I attended public schools until high school, when they made additional sacrifices to have me placed in private school. Other than visiting mom's family in the Caribbean every summer, there were no family vacations beyond one trip to Europe, when my grandmother had something of a windfall and provided the funds.

I got very good grades and when it came time to attempt college, I was accepted to Fordham and Iona. But the financial aid I was offered was a pittance and if I were to take either offer, it meant my parents would have had to take equity out of the only asset they had and/or me applying for student loans out the wazoo that would follow me around for decades. I was raised to be very cautious as to the financial commitments and debts that one takes on. So I wound up attending a CUNY school and working as a waitress. My first attempt at college was interrupted by my dad's cancer. I quit school to work full-time to help my mom and younger sibling. Many years later I'd attempt to return to school and 9/11 happened. That advanced degree has eluded me, but I've still managed to learn tons both inside and outside the classroom and my atypical background and non-typical thinking is what I bring to the table.

There will always be types that look at you askance, based on whatever personal watermark or gauge that they choose to use. I know there are types that look down on me because of where I choose to live, some of the things I do and places I go. But I do and I go where I please because it pleases me. I could give a shit if someone thinks that my preference to go get some sun at Orchard Beach or the Jersey Shore versus the Hamptons or Fire Island is somehow beneath them. It's my choice, not theirs. To each his/her own.

Keep doing what you're doing. Those that see you as an asset will treat you as someone of value, that goes for relationships inside and outside of work. Those that don't, fuck 'em. Just because you're the only one with your particular story doesn't make your story any less interesting or not of value. Embrace your less-than-cookie-cutter-history and continue to make it work for the only person that matters, you. And thank you for sharing your story.

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