Wednesday, October 12, 2016

1st in Line, Leaving a Trail

I read an article about being a first-generation college student that shot me right back to my days pursuing my first degree. While my undergrad experience was wonderful in many ways, there was so much going on inside that it was also the hardest internal struggle I faced until I was slapped with widowhood.

Growing up, college was always a given, financial limitations be damned. That's why there were scholarships, and I was going to use my GT status to the fullest to get as many as possible. Before it was as easy as typing a few words into a search engine, I did hours of research, talked to as many people as would listen, and checked out mountains of books on the application process. I was a sponge when it came to all things financial aid, grants, scholarships, and student loans. A cocktail of these aids that included a work/study program while I took on eighteen credits per semester and worked an off campus part-time job made college possible. I thought that getting accepted to the college of my choice was the hard part. Academics were never a problem for me, so on my first day of my undergraduate career, I thought it was smooth sailing from then on. I had visions of the college life I had seen on Beverly Hills 90210 (the original series, not the one with the waif model), full of parties, all-nighters that were centered more on my social circle than grades, football games, and huge auditoriums where I could get lost in the sea of students and not stick out as the only Latina in the class.

Those things all happened and I enjoyed them, but internally it was a different story. I lived with tremendous guilt. Not only did I feel bad for going so far from home, but having the privilege of going away to school felt like something I didn't deserve. Who was I to get this experience while other Latinx kids just as smart as me were delegated to city colleges and full time jobs post-high school? Why did I get away from the violence of Chicago, while my parents and siblings were left to fend for themselves in that danger? It was unfair, and I felt undeserving. 

The guilt was palpable. It is still one of the things I remember very vividly about that time in my life. Going home on breaks made the guilt feel worse. I was different, but everyone at home expected me to the same. So much happened that I had no one at home to talk to who could relate. It's not that my parents didn't check on me and ask how things were going, but they mostly inquired about academics. What I struggled with was the feeling of abandonment. They were proud of me for leaving and I knew they saw it as my being a role model, but I constantly felt like I needed to apologize. I didn't understand those feelings and they turned into avoidance. I didn't like going home anymore, which added to my guilt. I was far enough away that I wasn't expected home often, but close enough that I could have gone home a lot more than I did. But being home felt out of place, too.

I loved being with my family, but I loved who I was when I was on campus. They were so distinct from one another. If I was too much of one in the other world I got strange looks and comments discounting my Latiness, my ability to related to other urban youth, my devotion to my roots and hometown. Both places were shaping me so rapidly and yet I had to keep them so separated. 

Luckily, I had first-gen friends who could relate to the duality, and some even came home with me and met my family and offered me some relief at managing both worlds. Their observations of the person they knew on campus vs. the person they saw at home made me at times uncomfortable, like I was a fraud, other times I challenged the notion that I led two different lives. But, looking back, that's exactly what I did. Part of it was that I had no idea the reaction others would have at my being first-gen. I never heard the term or thought of it as defining me before getting to college. I wasn't comfortable with the label because it felt exclusive. It seemed to imply some achievement, but I did not feel like I had achieved anything yet. Secondly, it felt dismissive the accomplishments of those before me. My cousin had gone to a university; my dad had taken some classes at a city college, and my mom completed a vocational program. I was proud of them for that. Saying I was a first-generation college student felt as though their struggle wasn't as valid as mine, and I resented that.

It took time to see the label for the positives it can hold. Years later I realized that while getting to college wasn't unique, it was more of an achievement than I had ever given it credit for. Making it to a major university away from home with little to no family guidance, and then surviving the challenges that came with it was big. It set the precedence for those who would come after me, so they wouldn't have to be the lone "first". They could look at me and see it was possible, and better yet, have someone to help them get through it, just like I had.

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