As students across the nation head back to the classroom this month, we are celebrating First-Generation students. A First-Generation College Student is defined as a student whose parents didn’t attend college; or is the first person in their immediate family to attend college; or neither parent has at least one year of college.
Who inspired or supported you in your college-going journey?
As a first-generation college student, my journey to a postsecondary institution began with me. Since adolescence, pursuing a higher education has always been important to me. However, my mother and I were oblivious to how to navigate through the process. Teachers mentioned college but never told us what we needed to do in order to pursue higher education or the significance in doing so. It was not until I began the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) academy in high school that I came across a cohort system that provided me with social and cultural support throughout the process of applying to college. More than half of the members in my cohort would be first-generation college students and some were even the first in their families to receive a high school diploma.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as a first-generation college student?
Aside from financial barriers, people do not mention the additional struggles that first-generation students face, such as cultural shock and loneliness. I had not realized the importance of searching the race and ethnicity ratio of my new environment until the first day of my undergraduate career. I often found myself not speaking my native language and sometimes forgetting some words in Spanish as I spoke to my mom on the phone. Moreover, I felt alone due to the physical absence of my mom and sisters. I lost everyday memories with my family and every time I came home, my little sister was older and wiser.
How did you overcome those challenges and how did you persist?
After speaking to my mom about this issue, she asked me if there were any clubs or organizations I could join like I did in high school. Shortly after, I came across several multi-cultural organizations, but one stood out to me the most. Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, Inc. is composed of strong, hard-working women who share similar backgrounds and goals. Within a span of weeks, they became my home away from home. Apart from the individual growth they inspired, they provided me with guidance to navigate within the university, my personal life, and future goals. At times, I still felt the absence of my family, specifically my younger sister, but I managed to cope with this by maintaining strong communication via Facetime and visiting my family when I had the opportunity. Although I missed out on important moments in her life, the excitement came when she began to follow my footsteps and was accepted to the number one public university in California. That is when I realized my sacrifice – paving the way – was worth it because it encouraged my family members to want to pursue higher education. The challenges, yet rewarding experiences, I underwent throughout my undergraduate career helped shape my intended major and career trajectory. I became interested in researching the different ways to increase the visibility of first-generation students and students of color in higher education by providing them with adequate resources to help them succeed.
What advice would you give to a first-generation college student today?
Being the first one in my family to earn a college degree has been a learning experience for us all. It feels as if we all walked the stage that afternoon due to all the battles we overcame from the very start of our journey. Now I find myself on the way to pursue a masters in sociology with an area of specialization in education, looking back to everything these past four years have taught me. I learned the importance of having a support system other than your family and loved ones. I learned how crucial it is to read about the journeys of students with a similar background as my own in order to continue pushing. I learned it is okay to ask for help and continue asking for help.
Gabriela Flores is ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning intern. She recently received her BA in sociology and Chicanx studies with a minor in education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She will continue her education at California State University, Northridge as she works to obtain her Master of Arts in sociology. Gabriela is a first-generation Latina student who plans to go into research in her near future where she will aim to increase the visibility of students of color in higher education. Read her other blog here.