I hate being a first generation college student. At least I used to.
My father & mother immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. They met in Disney World where my father was a chef and my mother was a waitress. Both of my parents never had a college education. However, this fact didn’t affect my childhood at all. Through most of my life, I never felt different from peers because of my parent’s education status. I never felt horrible about myself and humiliated because of my parent’s nonexistent alma mater. But then, these feelings of bitterness and shame hit me immediately when I went to college.
I am currently a Junior studying Chemistry at the University of Washington. Since Freshmen year, I felt what differentiated me from my classmates was not my personality, but my parent’s education status. I remember the first day of Uni., walking into Psychology 101 and hearing my classmates behind me discussing her father taking economics class during his Freshmen year. To the left, there were people sharing their parent’s alma mater. I tried to not make eye contact, to save myself from embarrassment because I wouldn’t have an adequate answer to either ‘what classes my parents took when they went to college?’ or ‘what’s my parent’s alma mater?’ — they didn’t have one. I felt ashamed. But mostly, I felt jealous that most of my classmates had a leverage of knowing what college life was like prior to coming because their parents had experienced it first hand.
I felt left out and this generated animosity that kept growing until it became self-doubt.
Everyday I would talk myself down, telling myself that I wouldn’t become anyone due to my background and where I came from. I lost motivation to do well because I felt like my classmates were already so far ahead of me in life that I would never catch up. I blamed my failures and inadequacies on the excuse that I was a ‘first generation college student’. Essentially, I lost my sense of self-worth and spiraled into a detrimental cycle. But I knew I was better than this and with discipline & focus I pulled myself out.
Fast forward to today, I no longer feel ashamed about neither myself nor my parents for not having a college education. Instead I’m proud. I’m proud of my parents for the very happy childhood they built for me & my brother starting from nothing when they came to America. They’ve worked so hard to maintain our household and keep our bellies full.
My parents didn’t deserve to be part of this animosity that I have created for myself. I feel guilty for being unappreciative and not empathizing with the struggles my parents went through living in this country esp. my daddy. I remember the stories he told me when I was younger — when he slept on the benches in the underground stations of New York, pretending to wait for a train, or when he got arrested trying to refuge to Hong Kong.
It’s silly to let one tiny aspect influence my value of life and to define who I am. I admit it, I still have residual feelings of animosity, but they are not strong enough to disrupt the confidence I have earned and built for myself. Instead, these feelings act as a reminder for the wasted months and mental energy for feeling bitter about things that I could not control.
But all of this is not the real struggle. The struggle doesn’t lie with the feelings of being left out or the loneliness associated with the absence of belonging within your peers, because you have the choice to allow these sentiments to affect you or not. Instead, it’s the inevitable distance created between you and your parents right after you leave for college. In the beginning it was fine, but ‘fine’ quickly faded.
College education & time changed me. My perspective in life expanded and my passion for science became reignited. However, this growth damaged my relationship with my parents. I became a different person and I lost the connection I had with them prior to college — we no longer had anything in common. They couldn’t relate to my life anymore. I started calling home less often, because it pained me to hear the separation physically unfold between us. The communication was lost and it felt miserable to be stuck in limbo where I didn’t feel like I belonged to neither my Uni. nor my family. Yet, it’s not my parents fault — it’s no one’s fault.
I guess it’s the part of me growing up, but within this mess I see an opportunity for growth between my parents & I, as I become the intermediary between my expanding perspective of the world and them. Instead of focusing on the dissimilarities in our lives, I started to learn & ask about their interests — relating them to Science & Technology to help my parents understand my world view. It’s like re-meeting my parents again, folks that I thought I always knew better than anyone else.
I’m glad to say that ever since I made this effort, my relationship with my parents has been stronger and happier.
Even more so, I’m excited to share the many firsts that I will experience in college, in my life, with my parents. It will soon be our first college graduation, our first degree — memories that we will create & share together. Sometimes I smile realizing how far we have come as a family.
In all, I can only speak for myself, for my struggles. Each individual will have a different experience. But I know for sure, that we’re never grounded by where we come from or by our socioeconomic status. It’s the perspective we have on life that matters the most.