Chapter 1: 4 Things I Wish I Knew As A First-Generation College Student

Being a first-generation college student is not an easy task by any means. While it’s an incredible blessing to be the first in one's family to break barriers and have access to new opportunities, there’s an undeniable amount of pressure that comes with the job. You feel a constant need to prove yourself to not only your family and friends but also to complete strangers who surround you in your everyday life. You constantly search for validation through your achievements, and the fear of failure is something that both drives you and holds you back. To top it all off… there’s not really anyone you can go to when you need to blow off some steam. While your loved ones can try to be there for you during those tough times, they can never truly understand the weight on your shoulders because they’ve never experienced it themselves. So next thing you know, you have a 4.0 GPA and a wall full of achievements, while still feeling insatiable.

Being the first to ever do something is exhausting and downright terrifying at times. Especially when you’re a person of color with immigrant parent(s) who’ve sacrificed their entire lives to plant the seed of hope in yours. How can you possibly admit that you’re exhausted and burnt-out, without sounding ungrateful for the decades of hard work that have gotten you where you are? I know that feeling all too well. But as someone who is in their last year of college, if there’s anything that I’ve learned in the past four years it’s that half of the battle is in your head. Most of the time, the little voice inside your mind is your only enemy. I wish I could say there was a magical way to silence that voice but honestly, it’s something that will never leave you. The good news is that you can learn to live with it, and it all starts by prioritizing your well-being first. If you’ve resonated with any of the things I’ve said so far, then here are a few things I wish I would’ve known when trying to navigate college in a peaceful way for the first time.

  1. Failure does not define you: I wish more people spoke about how truly pervasive the fear of failure is when you’re a first-gen student. You feel like all eyes are on you all the time, and that everyone is betting on you to win. But I’m here to tell you that you are more than just a horse in everyone else's race. You deserve to live a life that’s equally as well-rounded and fulfilling as anyone else's. The best way to do that is by giving yourself the gift of self-forgiveness. While you can’t control everyone else's reactions, you can control how you feel about yourself. When we give ourselves the space to fail, and be forgiven for those failures, we realize that what truly matters is how we deal with adversity, not how it derails us.
  2. Don’t wait to feel accomplished; Claim it: If there’s one thing that you need to drill into your mind, it's that perfection is a terrible thing to pick as your starting line. If you wait until you feel ready/finished/qualified to feel accomplished, then you’ll be waiting for a long time. Sometimes we need to claim positive emotions for ourselves, rather than waiting for them to claim us. Remember that you are always in control.
  3. Find your own voice: a lot of us first-gen students become people pleasers by default because we’re afraid of deviating from the expectations other people have of us. It becomes difficult to differentiate your desires from the desires that have been projected onto us for as long as we can remember. It’s important to ground yourself and ask yourself questions like: who or what am I doing this for? Does this make me happy? Am I satisfied with the course my life is taking right now?
  4. Who you are outside of academics: When you’re a first-generation student, it’s easy to become consumed by academia and trying to excel in educational spaces. One of the things I wish I would’ve reminded myself of more often is that we are allowed to explore who we are outside of academics. There is nothing villainous about having a hobby or trying out new activities during your spare time. You are a human being, not a robot, and you deserve to experience things for your personal enjoyment as well.

Lastly, I’m sure we’ve all heard the saying: pressure makes diamonds. But what happens if, after all your hard work, you still don’t feel like a precious gem? What if you just feel like a rock? Believe it or not, that’s totally okay. As long as you always remind yourself to take things one day at a time, then trust me when I say you’ll get there eventually. And guess what? Maybe you are a rock. But rest assured that you are one crucial aspect of a firm foundation that will never waiver, and that will withstand the test of time

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    Meet the Author
    Emely Rodriguez is a first-generation Afro-Latina who was born and raised in New York City. She is currently in her final year of undergrad at the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education. She has obtained a minor in African American Studies and is expected to complete her degree in Biomedical Sciences this upcoming spring. Read more about Emely >