La Primera, Pero No La Ultima
To my sisters and to the siblings of other first-generation students: you belong here. We may be the firsts, but we won’t be the lasts.
“Everybody looks rich and smart” — An observation of the USC Village made by my sister.
Sis—do I look rich to you? Maybe a little smart, but rich? Talk about a “she doesn’t even go here” moment. I think about this moment a lot because reading between the lines it means that she can’t fully believe that I do go here, and even more upsetting, I don’t think she sees the possibility of herself going here either. This speaks to feeling like you don’t belong in certain spaces because when you look around, there isn’t many, if any, people who look like you. Though her description may not encapsulate everyone who goes to USC, her feelings and thoughts are valid. I, along with many other first-generation students, have felt this way throughout our collegiate journey.
When I tell you that immigrant, three-year-old, non-English speaking me could have never imagined being here today — finishing my master’s degree at the top OT program — I mean it. Growing up, college was never a topic of conversation in my house, yet education was always emphasized to be the key for a better future. Getting good grades was expected and not something to be rewarded for — the one time I asked my mom if I could get an allowance for having straight As she was quick to say “. . . mira mira, ya parece que te voy a dar dinero por hacer tu trabajo en la escuela . . . esa es tu responsabilidad.” Being a good student was my responsibility and something I took great pride in. Subconsciously, it was also something I held onto with the hopes of getting into a “good” college one day.
Going to college is such a romanticized notion though . . . from choosing your dream school, to moving away from home, living in a dorm, meeting the people who will become your lifelong best friends, and everything else that you daydream about until reality hits. How do you get to live all these experiences when you don’t even know the name of any universities (besides the ones stamped onto the sweaters your classmates wore), when you don’t know how/where to apply, when you’re poor and probably can’t even afford to live these experiences? I remember asking my dad if he had a savings account because, if I decided to go, college would be really expensive. He didn’t give me a clear answer but assured me that if I wanted to go to school, we would make it happen. In his words, “Hay mucho sacrificio que se tiene que hacer, pero independientemente de eso, [mientras que tenga el apoyo de todos, yo puedo] salir adelante.” Needless to say, pursuing higher education has been a very tiring journey.
It’s almost like being completely lost in the application process and scared that somehow you incorrectly inputted something in your FAFSA is a rite of passage for first-generation students. And I know for a fact that this isn’t true for all college students because I can name some of my high school peers whose parents did everything for them — but that’s besides the fact and my point is simply that we’re not all on an equal playing field. Being first-gen means figuring it out on your own and paving the way for those who will follow after you. Though this is rewarding, it is exhausting.
No one really talks about the culture shock that you may experience, the impostor syndrome, the burnout, the guilt, and all the other not-so-good things that come with college and that are compounded by being first-gen. Fully unpacking what it means to be first-generation, however, cannot be done in one blog, so stay tuned for the sequel. But I don’t want to end this blog without acknowledging that in the process of chasing and living out this dream of being the firsts in our families to go to college, we often lose sight of who we are and what we want. We carry the hopes, dreams, and sacrifices of our parents and families, which fuel our academic drive but also hold us back from other things we want to do with our life. So, I encourage you to check-in with yourself; what do you want?