November 9, 2020
This week is USC’s “First Generation Student Week.” USC defines a first-generation student as someone whose parents do not have four-year college degrees. At USC, roughly 20% of the students are considered “first-gen” and that includes me! Because this week is about highlighting first-generation students, I want to talk about what this experience (being the first person in my household to go to college) has been like for me. If I were to sum it up in a few words, I would say “challenging but rewarding.” I know how cliché and overused that phrase is, but it is true.
My mother was still in high school when she had me and though her and my dad regularly tell me how much joy I brought to their lives, they acknowledge the multiple challenges that come with being a young parent — one being completing higher education. Since I could remember, education, getting good grades, and going to college has been ingrained in my upbringing. After school, when my friends would play outside, I had to read “hooked on phonics” books first. Honestly, growing up in New Orleans with debilitating humidity, I was happy to stay indoors to read. My parents pushed education because they wanted me to have experiences that they did not. They instilled a hunger for learning because they figured it would keep me on the “right track.”
All my life, I strived for As. It started with getting incentives by the end of the week (a stop at Toys R’ US or extra money in my allowance) but then it was more long term — I wanted to get into a “good college” and make my family proud.
Before college, everything felt like a straight path. School had always been “easy.” I never had to think about financing my education or having a place to live alongside completing readings, meeting deadlines, studying for tests. What was expected of me had completely shifted. On top of that, I went to school out of state and had absolutely no family around me. I remember a couple of times when I would cry on the phone to my mom because I felt overwhelmed. The most difficult part was reaching out to my parents and them not being able to help me. As a child and sometimes as a teenager, your parents are your superheroes. In the past, I could reach out to them for anything and together, we could come up with a solution. But now, I had to figure out everything on my own. From difficulties in class, to being a student worker all the way to handling east coast winters. They had no answers. For the first time in life, I could only rely on myself. As someone that takes a while to open up to people and someone that does not like asking for help, there were moments when I truly struggled.
During those moments of confusion and exhaustion, what kept me determined was my family — specifically, my siblings. I did not know what I was doing but I was going to figure it out — for them. Because, then, they would know that it was possible. Though I always had what I needed (food, water, shelter), I was raised in a low socioeconomic class. I, and the rest of my neighborhood, grew up on food stamps. Though my parents sheltered me as much as they could, I saw a lot of violence growing up, I saw substance abuse, and I saw family members taken away to jail. I saw what happens when people are not exposed to better opportunities or lack proper support to obtain those opportunities. I did not want my loved ones to be in that position. My parents could talk about how college was the right route to go, but they could not show me. I could show my brothers and sister and I could make my parents proud along the way. This was an opportunity to pave the way.
Because I am the first to get my bachelor’s degree, I will also be the first to get my master’s and later, the first to get my doctorate. While I am immensely proud of myself, I am not the only person that I do it for. As mentioned, I do it for my family. But, I also do it for other first-generation students. It is very difficult to go through such an extreme transition without guidance from your guardians. People discuss college as something that everyone must do — like it is some sort of “no-brainer” but they do not talk about how hard it is, and the resources to get through it is not readily available.
I love that there is a First-Generation Student Week because it acknowledges the challenges that first-gen students experience, congratulates us on our triumphs and provides resources so that we can continue moving forward. To all of the first-generation students, I am so proud of you. You have accomplished so much and you will continue to accomplish so much more.
Thank you for sharing your story! I am a first generation student working on finishing my bachelor’s and I relate so much to the story you shared. It’s been a hard journey, but in the end we will have the opportunity to touch the lives of so many future generations in our families and the future clients we will work with. Congrats on almost finishing your Masters!