By Sarah Vasquez
First-generation guilt: it’s basically “survivor’s guilt,” but in a university setting.
‘First-generation college students’ are usually students whose parents did not continue their
education by earning four-year degrees.
Research has shown that first-generation students are more prone to psychological issues than
other students. These issues extend from the stress or worry these students might feel from
leaving behind a family member or guilt from pursuing a higher education instead of continuing
a job that helped support their families. Still, stress might also result from lack of family support
or the stigma surrounding first-generation students.
Despite the clear definition of what a ‘First-gen’ student is, I still believe that this term, or at
least the feelings connected to it can apply to students who are breaking family or community
expectations in other ways. For example, my parents are educated and earned their bachelors’
degrees. However, neither of them were able to explore the possibility of attending a larger
research university, or another school other than their local community colleges. When I
announced my decision to study public relations at a prominent state-school in a very liberal
city, my family was supportive, but still overwhelmed and even concerned. Providing some
context, I grew up in a very conservative and rural community where most of the girls either
became nurses or teachers. Why did their straight-A daughter not want to be a nurse or an
engineer? What was communications and why did she want to go to a state-school to pursue it?
There were a lot of questions on their mind.
My experience attending such a prominent university when no one in my immediate family had
ever done so was difficult. There was a lot of frustration and tears. Back home, I ignored snarky
remarks from members of our community. Here are just a few of the comments I overheard
when visiting during the summer and holiday breaks:
“Does she think she’s too good for the local school?”
“Communications? She’s not going anywhere with that. Don’t worry she’ll change her mind.”
And of course there were more positive comments, like:
“Que bien Mija! Are you going to get your masters?
It seemed like everyone wanted to comment on my decision and on my family’s decision to
support me. And that was the thing, I was so incredibly lucky to have their support despite this
inverse of roles. Inverse of roles? Let me explain. For once in my life, I knew more than they
did about life outside of our tight-knit community. I began to realize my independence and this
wealth of new knowledge my university was providing me. Sadly, there did come a time when
the fear of not-knowing took my parents; the fear that their daughter’s opinions – which were
largely a reflection of the education she was receiving and they were helping to provide – were
becoming too far from their own.
This divide can be mended but not changed. When speaking to other students who were going
through similar situations, one student actually admitted to keeping up two separate identities.
He had two separate social media accounts for every platform, one for his college friends and
one for friends from home. When I asked why he wouldn’t combine the accounts, he said that he
didn’t feel like his friends from back home would understand or support him.
I’m not sure I could ever divide my life like that but admittedly, I am careful with what I choose
to share with friends and family when I visit home.
Finally, what I resisted most was choosing to identify myself as a “First-gen” despite inwardly
feeling the confusion and stress of being one. I remember walking through campus and being
targeted by a girl with flyers, “Are you a first-gen? We have a club for first-gen’s.” How did she
know? Did I look different from the other students? Was first-gen written on my forehead?
While others might have clearly seen the good intention behind this kind of outreach, in the
moment I was a little offended. I’ve always struggled with the fear of being underestimated by
others and of underestimating myself, I was scared that if I identified myself in this way, then I
might start to believe I needed more help than my peers.
Now this blog article was supposed to be about my experience with first-generation guilt and
how I overcame it, but the truth is I haven’t. I’ve graduated from high school, obtained a
bachelor’s degree, lived in two different cities, and I am still overcoming the feelings connected
to being a first-generation student. I can understand why first-generation students choose to
keep these thoughts to themselves, but as of late I am also noticing an increased pride and
willingness in being so vulnerable.
So how do I overcome first generation guilt? I remember taking part in a conference where this
same subject was being addressed.
“Put your oxygen mask on first.”
Yes, when you are in an airplane, the flight attendants will walk you through safety procedures.
They warn that if the event arises to put your own oxygen mask on first, even before a child’s or
an elder’s. Now it sounds funny, it sounds rude, but only if you put your oxygen mask on first,
then you are able to help others. When you accomplish goals and put to silence the skeptics, you
open a path for others to follow, you create opportunity for yourself and others.
Yesterday, I received my first job offer. I called my parents excited, expecting them to rush me
into accepting. But they surprised me. They told me to wait, to make sure it was what I really
wanted to do. They had seen me take a risk on my education, and took that risk with me. Now,
my parents were ready to enjoy the reward and wanted to make sure it was worth the change,
worth the stress, and worthy of our decision.