Art credit: Cindy Luo (Daily Trojan)
There wasn’t any doubt I would go to college one day. Learning was my past time. My passion. The sheer idea that I would someday be able to attend an institution dedicated to acquiring knowledge was like a dream come true. I couldn’t wait! But, honestly, if I was being completely truthful that wasn’t the full reason of why I wanted to go to college. After all, I could see right in front of me just how much more difficult life is for those who don’t have a degree. I didn’t want that life. I wanted something better.
But unfortunately, the world of academia is difficult to navigate if you have no one to turn to. I couldn’t ask my mom what campus life was like. I couldn’t ask her how hard college courses were. I couldn’t even ask her how and where to apply for the scholarships which we desperately needed me to get. She never went through any of that. Even simply applying to college was a challenge on its own. I had no idea what the SAT or ACT was. I didn’t know which colleges to apply to nor how to choose a major. And, I especially had no idea what criteria universities wanted to see in their applicants, nor any way to know how to prepare. Again, I couldn’t ask my family. I was the first person to go through any of these things. There was no one to ask and no one that could relate.
Though I did survive college, it was difficult. Coming in, I thought college was no more than taking classes and getting good grades. Like high school, but more advanced. But, my naïve notion was quickly shattered when I learned from my other peers (those that had guidance) that college was more than that. There were internships that I could apply to. There was research I could participate in. There were opportunities that allowed me to pursue my interests and build my resume. These are things I would have otherwise not known about because no one felt the need to share them with me. So I was left scrambling, trying to figure out all this new information that was given to me, because if I didn’t, I feared falling to far behind. After all, I was already at a disadvantage.
But, if I thought navigating undergrad was difficult, nothing and no one (heh, literally) could have prepared me for grad school. Never mind that I knew nothing about the GRE or its subject tests, but even just figuring out where to apply or if I could even afford a graduate degree (because how was I supposed to know that STEM PhDs get waived tuition) was a whole other monster I was forced to deal with alone. Not to mention that grad school terminology such as assistantship, dissertation, fellowship, candidacy… those things simply were not in mine nor my family’s vocabularies. So, instead of asking the right questions that would help me prepare for grad school (i.e. What should I look for in a mentor? How tough was the transition to grad school? What did you wish you knew before starting your program?) I instead had to rely on hours of panicked google searching in order to even touch just the surface of this knowledge that I was never privileged to get.
Being a first generation college/grad student is a triumph. It is something worthy of praise. People say how smart we must be because we made it…made something of ourselves. But, ignoring all the racial stereotypes that flow out of these so called praises, no one seems to realize just how difficult our journey has been from the very beginning. We may have made it, but how many benefits were we unaware of because we were scrambling to figure everything out last minute? How many opportunities did we find out about a little too late because no one thought we might need to know? If I got a dollar for every time I’ve uttered the phrase “I wish I’d known that sooner,” well, let’s just say I wouldn’t have any student loans.
I could go on and on about the struggles that I went through, and still am going through, as a first generation college and grad student. I could cite the numerous statistics that I now all too well. I can even go into the disadvantages we have due to our high likely hood of being minorities from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. But that’s not really the point. The point of this post is two fold. First, I wanted to bring awareness to this issue that many choose to ignore. To make someone think about this issue, even just for a second. I also hope that if someone out there can relate to anything I’ve talked about thus far, that they can realize that they’re not alone and, though trying at times, it is possible to make it through.
If any first generation students need help in navigating the crazy halls of academia, please feel free to ask me any questions you might have or even suggest topics that you would like me to write about. College and grad school are hard enough. However they’re infinitely harder when you don’t have any guidance to begin with. I would be honored to help any one of you out, even in the smallest way possible. After all, us first gens need to stick together. 🙂
Best of luck to all of you!