To the First Generation Archaeology Student

how do we get first generation and working class college students to become archaeologistsBefore continuing with this post, I just have a few things to say to all the first-generation and working class college students in the United States:

You matter. You are worthy of college. Your university is better off having you there.

You belong in college. Hard work, dedication, and skills got you here. You have a right to reap the benefits of the resources available at your institution of higher learning.

Never let anyone tell you that it was luck that got you here. Serendipity may have helped you along the way, but you would not have gotten here if you had not placed yourself in the right place at the right time. Luck had nothing to do with it. There is no substitute for hard work.

You are not here to meet a quota, add diversity, pay tuition, pay an administrator’s salary, or provide a space for a professor to wax poetically about their research. You are here to earn a college degree and all the benefits afforded a college graduate. In the process, you will also get an education.

There is a reason why not all adult Americans have college degrees. Before you graduate, you will know why.

Now the bad news:

A college degree is simply social proof that you have basic aptitude at a field of inquiry and the ability to doggedly pursue a goal across multiple years. It doesn’t mean you’re supremely intelligent or entitled to anything more than any of your fellow Americans. Upon graduation, you will not be the only person with a college degree in our society. Your degree does not make you better than others who do not have a degree.

Universities are now public/private quasi-corporate bureaucracies. One of the things they sell is degrees. Universities haven’t been places of higher learning since Ibn Khaldun, al-Kabari, Avicenna, Plato, Aristotle, or Laozi (They probably weren’t then either). You can get an education there but learning how to navigate complex bureaucracies might be one of the most important things you will learn.

College is expensive. Loans can be a lifelong burden. Be smart about how much you pay for your degree.

Employers will not know you are a first generation college graduate. Few will care. Degrees do not get people jobs. They are only a piece of information can help you get a job. Employers are hiring you for your knowledge, skills, ability, experience, personality, and potential, not simply because you have a degree.

In college, you will be in the same classroom as persons with more wealth, intergenerational knowledge, connections, and privilege than you ever knew existed. Some of these people will be your professors. They will not know what it is like to be working class. They will not understand that you didn’t grow up with college-educated people at your back. They might even discriminate against you for not coming from “the right background.” Be ready for that.

In most fields, college will not prepare you for the workplace. It is up to you to figure out which skills are applicable outside the classroom, build these skills, and market them to employers. You will still need to keep doing this after graduation.

You will have to advocate on your own behalf. Your parents can’t do it. Professors can’t do it. You are the only one who can find resources and marshal them to help you graduate. Believe in yourself. Stand up for yourself.

College is not fair. It is not equal. It does not foster fairness nor equality. College corporatespeak leads you to believe the university is a fair place but, in practice, it is not.

The 21st century Economy is a New Animal. It needs educated people.

Humanity is undergoing a massive change driven by environmental change, technology, and culture. Access to education and educational attainment have the potential to play a pivotal role in what happens on planet earth in the next millennium. Currently, our global economy is hierarchical and disproportionately benefits those with access to wealth, political power, and influence. Higher education is an oxymoron: It helps improve the socioeconomic status of those who attain a college degree while also supporting and perpetuating our unequal world. But, it doesn’t have to be that way…

Education will play a pivotal role in building the economy of the future— A horizontal, fractionated, rhizomatic economy that provides more opportunities to local communities than the current, centralized, hierarchical one. College degrees will help you survive in the current economy but will also help you foster the more egalitarian, horizontal economy that the world needs. The social proof that comes with a higher education makes it easier to rise in the existing social, political, and economic system, which will have to change if we are to have a more just world. The plenitude will not be achieved unless the change the paradigm of those who create our systems (i.e. those with degrees). We are living in a transitional period where education will strongly influence the direction humanity takes.

A degree is a near necessity in the 21st century. Steve Jobs didn’t need a degree but you are not Steve Jobs. None of us is. For every savant without a degree, there are 20,000 more influential though leaders with a degree.

Most people in upper management have degrees. Degrees are also commonplace among upper and middle class American households. Some employers are lowering their education requirements right now but that’s only a temporary thing that can happen because we have more work than we do workers to do it. It will not last forever. You will need some sort of vocational training or a college degree if you want to raise or maintain your socioeconomic status. Or, you can go for a moonshot and become a billionaire app designer. The choice is yours.

A degree gives you employment options. During the Great Recession, companies cut payrolls starting with the bottom of the pay scale. Which jobs were safest? The connected, experienced top management caste of “industry leaders,” most of whom had a college degree.

You will live longer than you think. You will have more careers than you think. Your degree will help you navigate the plurality of jobs that will comprise your career. It will also help you earn more throughout your lifetime, some of which can be funneled into retirement investments that will help you through old age.

Our economy is set up to reward those with college degrees. People with degrees recognize those who have them. It is harder for them to see the value and ability of workers without a degree. This is one reason why so many jobs ask for a degree when it isn’t really necessary for the position.

If you decide to do archaeology, you will need a college degree to get paid. The glass ceiling in archaeology starts at the entry level. There’s another glass ceiling for those who would like to enter the management caste, which means you will probably need a graduate degree if you want to stay in archaeology. Don’t ask about academia until you’ve done enough cultural resource management archaeology to make you crazy enough to go up to the next level.

Archaeology and First Generation College Students

You’ve decided you want to be an archaeologist. You really want to do archaeology for a living and have decided to focus your college education on archaeology. Maybe you’ve done field school. Or, you might have taken an interesting class from a great professor. Or, you saw a public archaeology project on the news. Whatever your reasons, you probably have some sort of understanding as to what archaeology is about—its benefits and drawbacks—if you’re reading this blog.

I’m always surprised to hear from undergraduate students that they’ve never heard of cultural resource management archaeology even though it was never mentioned in my Bachelor’s program either. The vast majority of archaeologists earn their living doing CRM. If you’ve found your way to this blog post and want to become a professional archaeologist, I encourage you to read some of my previous posts on building a career in archaeology:

What do I tell aspiring young archaeologists?

So you think you want to be an archaeologist, Part I

So you think you want to be an archaeologist, Part II

Is archaeology really the career for you?

Adventure is for Archaeologists

Who qualifies as an archaeologist?

I also suggest you check out the tips on the “Free Job Search Toolkit” tab in the header above. I know this page needs an overhaul but the slideshows and PDFs on that tab remain relevant.

On top of those readings, I highly recommend buying the following books:

The Field Archaeologist’s Survival Guide: Getting a Job and Working in Cultural Resource Management by Chris Webster (2014)

The Anthropology Graduate’s Guide: From Student to Career by Carol Ellick and Joe Watkins (2011)

Checking out the aforementioned resources on this blog will help you get an idea as to what archaeologists do and what it takes to get into cultural resource management archaeology. Those readings are bareknuckle resources designed to help aspiring archaeologists become professional ones. While they are great tools you can use, they were written as universal resources aimed at a general “archaeology student/archaeological field technician” audience. They do not address many of the issues working class and first-generation college students face when they start to seriously think about doing archaeology for a living.

Archaeology and the First-Generation College Student

The vast majority of archaeologists are European Americans that grew up in upper or middle-class households where at least one parent had a college degree. This has impacted the field for over a century.

Increasing diversity in archaeology is a dominant preoccupation in the United States as well over 90% of American archaeologists are white. Archaeology programs and archaeologists are working hard to increase diversity in the field through efforts designed to increase the diversity of anthropology students in college and providing field experiences for young people at the local level. The idea is, if archaeologists can get public school children interested in archaeology, they are more likely to study archaeology in college. And, if we can include schools/communities with higher proportions of working class and children of color, we can get racial/socioeconomic diversity in university programs. Diverse university cohorts will become the training ground for diverse cadres of employees that will increase diversity in CRM and academia.

It’s a strategy archaeologists have been employing for years now. Ask me in 10 years how successful it has been.

Having a college degree is strongly associated with higher socioeconomic status. College degrees are not an automatic ticket to the white picket fence/two-car garage/1.9 children American Dream household we are all socialized to crave, but achieving that life is more likely for those Americans with a college degree. First-generation college students and their families know this. It’s why they’re going to college. However, first-time college students have unique needs that seem to have gone unnoticed by archaeologists.

A 1994 survey of American archaeologists summarized by Melinda Zeder revealed 54—56 percent of all archaeologists said they came from a middle class background. Between 20 and 27 percent said they grew up in upper class households. This means only a quarter of all American archaeologists know what it’s like to grow up in a working class household. I feel like failing to address the needs of first generation and working class college students has been one of the main reasons why the diversity campaign in archaeology has been less than fruitful. We haven’t thought about the unique situations faced by first-generation and working class students in such a way that they’d elect to pursue archaeology as a profession.

Archaeologists from middle and upper class backgrounds are probably unaware of what students from lower class backgrounds are facing. Researchers have studied the travails of working class and first-generation students, including a 2017 dissertation written by Rebecca Reed titled “The Poor/Working Class College Students’ Challenges and Resiliency Factors Scale.” These students face several realities on campus of which archaeologists may not be aware. Working class students:

  • May not know what sort of behavior is acceptable in a college environment.
  • Might not have the intergenerational cultural capital middle and upper class students bring with them
  • Could be facing daily microaggressions originating from classism among other students
  • Probably have no idea how college works (i.e. administrative red tape, accessing available resources, what is expected by professors).
  • Might be code switching and living a dual identity (i.e. building an on-campus persona that may not mesh with the way their parents/friends see them).
  • Often feel a higher need to make their family proud and may feel guilty for leaving family members to attend college.
  • Most likely have family members who consider them a success story or a savior who will rescue the family from poverty.
  • Sometimes feel guilty for their perceived upward mobility.
  • Could be suffering from depression, lower self-esteem, stress, and imposter syndrome because of their college experience.
  • Most importantly: While all students have some sort of relative poverty, working class students do not come from families with the resources to ease their poverty. (I’ve known students who were using portions of their meager work-study, internship, scholarship money to help pay bills of unemployed parent.)

These factors and more make create a different kind of burden for first generation and working class college students. In college they may feel pressure to enter an academic field that is perceived as “better” by their parents and the rest of society (i.e. more likely to garner a higher salary after graduation). I get that logic. If college is hard, it had better pay for itself. I can’t argue against that.

Unless your parents were archaeologists, I can understand the apprehension against the family’s first college student going into archaeology. It’s portrayed as a quick way to get killed in Hollywood and an esoteric field that revolves around Ancient Aliens on TV and YouTube. Who would want their child to get famous on TV for analyzing the bowel movements of a caveman?

Anyone working class student who tells their parents they are studying archaeology in college is going to get backlash at home. If not at first, definitely after experiencing that first layoff from a CRM company. I know I did. But, layoffs happen in every field. Companies go under. Government agencies are gutted by new administrations. This happens if you get a degree in finance or medicine as much as it does in CRM archaeology. Archaeology is not for everyone. We can’t sugar coat that but we can help them learn what they need to do to find gainful employment. It is up to today’s archaeologists to help as many aspiring archaeologists from working class backgrounds take action on their dream job.

How can archaeology include more first-generation and working class students

Increasing diversity in archaeology is one of my career-long goals. I do not have all the answers but I do know we need to do something. After having been on this case for a few years now, I feel like if we are going to have to expand our scope if we want to increase diversity in archaeology. Unfortunately, there are simply not enough non-white archaeology students in most university programs to have ethnocentric groups within our departments. Also, we run the risk of hyperprivileging certain minority statues, fueling tokenism, and placing even more pressure on the few archaeology students of color in our departments. This can force even more students of color to flee the department. It also has the potential to spark white victimhood and backlash among students who feel like too much attention is given to certain individuals. None of this is good for student cohorts who will need to rely on each other to find work and forge careers after graduation.

By addressing the needs of first-generation and working class students, archaeology professors are also acting in the interest of students of color. The actions I propose help all students, but have the potential to make a larger impact if done from a position where the travails of working class and first generation students are taken into account. These are actions to cultivate inclusivity among students and help students find work after graduation. It goes beyond the trainings and other corporatespeak we are all supposed to embody on a college campus because it has the potential to follow our graduates into the workforce. Here are some actions I’m trying out from my current position:

  1. Acknowledging awareness of the challenges first generation/working class students face: Growing up, my father had a college degree. My mom went back to school when I was in high school. Until recently, I was unaware of how much that helped me throughout my scholastic career. I came from a working class background, but was able to rely on my family to help me navigate university bureaucracies. Now, I’m trying to turn this awareness into advocacy for other working class students.
  2. Doing archaeological research that includes persons from working class communities: It’s easier to follow your dream if you have an example in mind. Many people of color have never seen a non-white archaeologist. Working class communities are unaware that CRM archaeologists are doing assessments of their heritage resources. Informing these communities of our work and taking efforts to include them is one of the best ways we can connect with working class youth from which many first generation and working class students come.
  3. Archaeology that addresses questions from the community: Part of this inclusivity involves asking community partners what they would like to know about their own heritage. Research that helps reveal relevant information is also more likely to spark interest among local youth.
  4. Finding ways to get first generation/working class students archaeology-related jobs: Many working class students can’t afford to take the unpaid internships bloating the resumes of more affluent students. Coursework needs to result in the kind of projects that students can highlight on their resumes and LinkedIn pages. Professors can also recruit undergraduates to work in the labs and credit their work in technical reports and publications.
  5. Helping students get ready for the job market: Aside from field school, workforce training is nearly non-existent in archaeology programs. This must change if we are to remain relevant in the 21st century corporatized university. Students need to be ready for employment outside anthropology, know who employs our graduates, and highlight the ways an anthropology degree has contributed to their career success after graduation. Students need to learn networking (both online and in-person), career planning, and interviewing.
  6. Connecting students to CRM companies: Okay, CRMers. Here’s where you fit in. Sick of teaching your new hires the same things again and again? Well, then come to campus and teach the students what you want them to be able to do. Are you also sick of going through piles of resumes every time you need field techs? Start recruiting directly from your local university. Since CRM is where most archaeologists are going to end up, it only makes sense to forge a public-private collaboration with the university anthropology departments near you.
  7. Getting students paid: This is not going to be easy but there needs to be some sort of financial compensation for student work. Work studies and internships need to be expanded wherever possible. Students who really want to do archaeology should get some leniency on assignments if they take a few days off to do a short CRM project. Students shouldn’t be missing weeks or entire semesters for CRM but they can do a couple days of monitoring or survey without receiving a failing grade. Of course, these opportunities will only be available if local CRM companies build a public-private collaboration with universities.
  8. Asking students what sort of support they need: Of course, we will not be able to address every single concern. But, we do need to do something if we keep hearing the same requests over and over again. Students: What’s that they say about the squeaky wheel?

Again, this will not solve archaeology’s diversity problem but it will do much to make an anthropology degree seem like a more worthwhile venture. Parents will rest more easily if they hear about their kid getting paid to do anthropology while still a student. Parents will also feel better if their kid is working towards employment in CRM if they’re getting paid to do archaeology before graduation. One of the best ways to make students feel successful is to treat them like they’re already professionals by paying them to do professional work. This will also create a CRM new-hire that is better prepared, connected, and willing to do consulting archaeology.

If we want to cultivate diversity in archaeology we will need to be more inclusive of first generation and working class students. It’s no secret that African American, Hispanic, Native American, and immigrant families disproportionately come from working class backgrounds. Focusing initiatives on working class and first generation students is likely to increase diversity in archaeology. Fortunately, what is good for working class and first generation college students also happens to be good for the cultural resource management archaeology industry.

Are you a working class or first generation archaeology student? What do you think about this? Write a comment below or send me an email.


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