Student Robert Chen, WG’19, explains how a Wharton MBA can help “level the playing field” for first-generation college graduates.

Robert Chen, WG’19, was the first generation in his family to finish college. His parents grew up in Hong Kong, leaving China where the Cultural Revolution prevented them from pursuing higher education. When Robert was 5, his family emigrated to New York, and he later attended Cornell University. He is a recent graduate of Wharton’s MBA Program for Executives.

Robert says that being a first-generation college graduate didn’t hold him back in his career, but it did reinforce “the importance of education for leading an effective life.”

He explained, “Being the first in my family to finish college and go on to graduate school has revealed to me just how much you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s always a challenge when you don’t have others to guide you through the process. Growing up, I guessed my way through important decisions like applying for financial aid and choosing majors because my parents hadn’t gone through that themselves. If you don’t know how the world works, it can impact the choices you make because you don’t know what the best choices are,” he said.

Another hurdle for first generation students, he noted, is that “if your family hasn’t gone through higher education, it’s easier to fall into the trap of not valuing a higher education, which may prevent you from reaching your full potential. My parents valued education and wanted me to do well in school, but since they didn’t have that experience, they didn’t really understand the impact it could make.”

“I would have certainly taken on different roles earlier in my career if I had known then what I know now. At the same time, it’s never too late to keep learning. I believe we can’t control or change our starting point and past decisions, but we can through education impact where we finish.”

Robert noted that Wharton’s MBA Program for Executives can “help level the playing field” in several ways:

Knowledge and Tools

“This program not only provides the knowledge and skills you need for a successful business career, but it also gives you an understanding of how to put those things to their best use to help you unlock your potential going forward. In my Executive Leadership program taught by Prof. Stew Friedman, I had the opportunity to clarify my values and vision and learned how to lead all aspects of my life.”

Hands-On Learning

“Since you are working full-time during this program, you can constantly test what you learn in the classroom against your reality and bring that feedback into the classroom. Your classmates are doing the same thing. All of this creates a rich learning environment to understand how the business world works in many different contexts and helps to keep the education practical.”


“In addition to the classroom, Wharton EMBA students have access to executive coaching and career management resources to guide you to be a better leader. The program is designed to give you the knowledge and tools needed to manage your career for the rest of your life.”

Robert added that it’s important to embrace your past. “I may have had a ‘different start’ because of past choices and my family situation, but those experiences also helped me develop learning agility and a work ethic that has helped me succeed in my career and enroll into this program.”

“My advice for new students is that once you are here, reflect on where you came from and where you want to go and take advantage of all the knowledge, tools, and resources offered to get the most out of opportunities for personal and professional growth,” he said.

— Meghan Laska

Posted: August 14, 2018

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