Although my father was born in another country, he has dual citizenship with America and Panama. My mother’s grandfather crossed from Mexico during the Great Depression and worked hard every day until he had his own business, successfully helping out his family and creating a comfortable home for his wife and children. I am far from a first generation student, whether you go by the first generation American-born (also, confusingly referred to as second generation) or first generation college student. But first generation students are more than a new box to check off on the Common App. Their experiences are unique — while many of us are born to parents determined to send us to college because they feel it’s part of what makes us “adults,” some first generation students, children of immigrants, feel a heavy burden to not only make it to college, but to support and help their family succeed. This expectation and others can clash with goals the student may have.
Example: if you follow the ubiquitous Humans of New York, you might have seen a picture of a first generation college student discussing her woes. Or another photo of another first generation young man talking about the cultural pressures of attending college and really succeeding in America.
There are many pressures on us heading-to-college-hopefuls, but I would like to share with you an anonymous interview with a first generation student who came to me with the idea. What is it like? We discussed cultural pressures, stigmas, and clashes between multiple types of people, and ultimately, the effect it has had on this student’s life and where this student plans on going. For the sake of clarity, we’ll refer to this student as FG.
So, why don’t you start out with what you really want to talk about with this, and I’ll direct my questions from there.
FG: Okay, so I think that this subject is one that a lot of people just don’t address or care to talk about — and it’s the different types of immigrants to the US and they have different motives.
By different motives you mean?
FG: As a first gen american, it can be hard to try to pull out a cohesive meaning of what my culture is, as my parents are from two different South American countries, right?
I can understand that, definitely.
FG: You see, one thing I’m noticing within my family is the divide between their intentions here. My mom came to NYC when she was 10 and left home at 18. She left to go set up her own life and own family. She is happy here and pretty sufficient. But my dad is someone who values tradition, and feels like he should support the rest of his family in his respective home country. It makes me very torn between two goals. I’m trying to live out the full American Dream — if there ever was one — and investing everything in our lives HERE. But I also feel the weight of trying to support another family. Financially supporting our family, abroad and here, just feels like losing money between my parents and I. Besides that, my mom and I have always agreed that my father would have preferred to return back to his home country, seeing as he spends a majority of his time on international calling.
So does that mess with your idea of how you should be living your life here?
FG: Well, to be living with that type of person makes it very hard because it’s hard to accept that their vision for a family unit is composed around what we are building for ourselves here, between my half-brother and I.
You say your mother clearly has put down roots here, but your father doesn’t. With that strong split, how did that affect your goals to go to college?
FG: Well, that was a bit different. With my mom, that was mostly financial, as my mom won’t retire until I finish and get a degree. So that had a bigger impact I would say. It wasn’t just because she wanted me to put down roots either, but because she of course views a degree as a great thing to have behind me.
And your father’s view?
FG: He isn’t vocal about it.
But you do say that he acts in a different way than your mother. Do those actions directly affect your choices with college and your degree choice at all?
FG: Well. His actions when translated feel like he’d rather not be behind my push for a degree. At times it feels like he’s defeating any long term personal goals I’d like to set for myself.
What’s your idea of the American dream and how has that been affected by the cultures you’ve grown up in?
FG: I think for me it comes across as too long term and I’m usually pretty patient.
Okay, but by “too long term,” you mean?
FG: I’ll rephrase. For first gen Americans, seeing their parents establishing and setting up for them what all they can (or choose not to), the weight of responsibility is either really motivational or really crippling.
Could you elaborate on that more?
FG: So, with the factors at play, any self-aware first gen student should do their best to be motivated by the fact that their parents are able to set you — the student — up for success. But I think what affects a lot of first gen students is the pressure to succeed. With that, the last comments I will say on my dad: I’m almost jealous that he knew of that simpler, third world lifestyle that had to function with or without school.
Thank you. It was great speaking with you.
FG: Of course, thanks for listening.