It was May 2011 and on this day, the day of Julia’s (name has been changed to protect student’s identity) college graduation, the reality of her accomplishment was made more powerful by the raw emotions of her dad, who despite his pride, didn’t want to attend. Symbolic not only of her individual success, but of her family’s success, Julia reluctantly says of her graduation, “it was traumatizing for all of us. It was really hard. My dad didn’t want to come because he didn’t feel secure in the white environment and he doesn’t speak English well”.
Julia grew up in southern California, the daughter of immigrants and throughout her childhood, she watched her parents struggle and work hard despite the constant barrage of barriers. She first remembers learning about college when she was a sophomore in high school, yet before then, she cannot recall college ever being part of the conversation. “In my family we didn’t discuss what I’d do after high school because my parents didn’t go to college. It was assumed I would work and at the time, I was fine with that”, but things changed when she had the chance to enroll in AP courses. “It’s unfair”, she says, that only AP students in her high school had immediate access to lectures about college and scholarships. When she found herself surrounded by self-proclaimed college-bound students in her AP classes, college suddenly became an option. “Other students were just trying to graduate [so they could work]”, but AP students, as she described, talked about college all the time.
For first generation college students, entering the realm of higher education can be exceptionally unique. Surely positive and empowering, but also laced with pain, confusion and sadness for some. If you’ve spoken the language of college your whole life, the moment you attend is simply another step on a path you’ve known would happen. You change of course, because that’s what happens when you emerge as a young adult and go away from home – for most college students, they join a campus community with people who look like them, share a first language and share common experiences based on socio-economic status and because of this, they can retain a sense of their identity.
But, for first generation college students, those certainties aren’t always so certain. “I don’t even know if it’s safe to say I retained anything” Julia says, “except for my ambition”. On what changed when she got to college, “that’s a hard question because there were so many things, so many external factors. My interactions with people changed, I had culture shock, I’d never known any white people before [and I found] my first white friends”. It was in college, when she studied abroad and her world opened more and it was a mentor who first planted the graduate school seed when she was a junior. She is now a M.S.W. student at a top graduate school.
This experience of “moving beyond” our parents is particularly poignant for first generation college students. The idea that children have attained a certain status that gives them access to people, opportunities and communities previously unavailable (for a variety of reasons) is both a piece of the American Dream and at the same time confusing. It’s analogous, perhaps to the idea of racial passing. For Julia, thinking about her college graduation is still emotional. Her honest candor and willingness to say what many are afraid to admit about perceptions of race and class speaks volumes about her strength, maturity and grace. Though she now has access to a new world simply because of her degree, she still feels the remnants of our societal ignorance, when for example, people question her place at the elite college she attended, instead chalking her admission up to Affirmative Action. She says, “I’d like to believe I was admitted because of my merits, but when people throw Affirmative Action in my face, they are questioning my intellectual capacity”.
Still exploring who she is as a young educated woman, Julia is proof, that when people are provided access to opportunities, they can thrive, even when they come from underserved public schools and don’t have years of college preparatory guidance. In a world where inequity is still both systemic and sometimes ignored, it’s imperative for more students to follow in Julia’s path. Her parents laid a foundation encouraging her strong work ethic and values and as a result, she is the first person in her entire extended family to earn a college degree. Julia says of her accomplishment, “I’ve made them more open-minded” and she’s confident her brother and cousins now see college not only as possible, but as mandatory.