- Posted January 24, 2013 by
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Chronicle of a First Generation College Student
I can still remember my first day of college, back in August of 2001. My parents were just as confused and scared as I was, because this was their first introduction to college life, too. As I look back now, some of those early experiences are amusing, but they definitely were not at the time.
I recall arriving in D.C. and watching tears roll down my mother’s face, because on our drive up to Howard from Atlanta, we had gotten lost and found our way to campus through the infamous streets of southeast D.C. On the outside, I remained composed. I did the best I could to camouflage my fear. However, on the inside, I wondered if I was simply trading one urban nightmare for another.
Prior to that day, neither my parents nor I had ever set foot on a college campus—let alone Howard University’s. We had seldom ventured beyond the Georgia state line. But eventually, we found our way to campus. Our first stop was the Mordecai Wyatt Johnson Administration Building to deal with all those freshman financial aid woes. It did not help that I did not complete my FAFSA until July, less than a month before school started. So, of course, I was not getting any free aid.
After walking out of the financial aid office, I thought I would be leaving Howard forever—walking away from my college dream and heading back home with my parents to Atlanta. My mom was furious. From meeting with a financial aid officer, we found out that unsubsidized loans were not grants, and that we would have to pay back that money. According to my mother, that is not what the lady in financial aid had told her over the phone before we got there.
Now, I have to admit, I was just as clueless as she was. I was not prepared for this. I had not been prepared for this. Neither had she. Up until that moment, I was convinced that the hardest part about going to college would be getting in. I had not fathomed any of the next steps. All my life, people around me had preached college, but no one had actually taught me about all it would entail to get and stay there.
It was in that moment that I started to feel alone. Even with my parents standing beside me, holding my hand, I could sense the distance growing between us. This was one of the first times in my life that I had turned to them and wanted all the right answers—expected them—only to realize that they did not have them. This was not the way I thought it was supposed to be.
On the long, pride-less walk back across the campus’ main yard—amid all the giddy collegiate faces [I swear it was like a scene out of The Cosby Show or A Different World] my mom and dad made a decision. They knew how much this meant to me—to them, so they agreed to sign for a Parent PLUS loan. But, they made sure I knew and understood that I would be the one paying it back—every nickel, every dime. At the moment, I did not care about debt years off. What mattered most was that I was starting college—this college.
I could not believe they had agreed to help me. I was in a state of disbelief. But, after a fleeting moment of joy, worry began to set in. In less than twenty-four hours, I would be left there, without the security of my mother’s love or my father’s wallet. I would have to the stay there, alone, with my doubt. I would have to learn to fend for myself. I would have to figure out ways to solve for all the unknowns. This was definitely not the independence I had been longing for.
Little did I know, this was just the beginning—and one of the smaller obstacles I would face on this voyage. I had no idea that the list I would fill up with mistakes while in college would magnify with each passing year. There would be a break-up with my high school sweetheart, conflicts with dorm mates, a quest for identity, and the struggle to balance my academic and social life. But, in the end, there would be one challenge that I would encounter in college that could not compare to the biggest hurdle of all.
I would have to say that the hardest part about college, for me, was feeling a growing sense of disconnection from my family and life back home. And not just in the sense that I missed them or it—it was much more than that. As time went on, it was like I did not belong and was not able to identify with them on a real level anymore. Many college students go through this, especially the ones who go away to college.
In the beginning, the small comments come. A lot of college students get the “you think you’re somebody now because you go to [insert the name of whatever college you attend or attended here].” Funny thing, many of us do feel this way at that point. We are on cloud nineteen. We feel so grown-up. We have just started a big chapter in our lives. We are living away from our parents and making “adult” decisions. We finally do feel like we are somebody. So, naturally, we want to gloat about it.
But overtime, my sentiments changed. As I matriculated through college, my trips back home grew fewer and fewer. One year, I would have to skip going home over Thanksgiving break because I was overwhelmed with my course load. The next year, it was spring break because I was broke. Then, it was the most sacred holiday of all—Christmas—because I had to work. After a while, I started to wonder which place was really more of my home.
I was missing so many milestones in my family and friends’ lives, and they were missing all the ones in mine. Memories were being made that I would never be a part of; moments were being lost that I could never get back. My niece and nephews were growing up without me. My youngest nephew hardly even recognized who I was when I would come home on breaks. And I envied all my friends who had decided to stay home or go to school close to Georgia. They were able to build on their bonds with each other and their families; their relationships seemed to remain intact. I started to feel like my life was going in a direction that I had not envisioned—a direction I no longer had control over.
Then there was the pressure. All college students are under pressure from family, friends and other people from back home to make them proud—to not let them down. But, it seemed to me, that as a first generation college student, I had ten times more pressure. Being the first person to go to college in my family—a black family at that—it seemed that I was already set up for failure. It was like a doubled-edged sword. Although I felt everybody was rooting for me, it also felt like they were rooting against me. I knew in my heart that many of them wished they had the opportunity to be in my shoes. Some of them had even said it.
Eventually, I got to a point where I hated going or calling home because of the way I was scrutinized or shunned. At one point, I was convinced that if I heard one more person in my family say, “You’re too good for us now because you’re in college” or “Excuse me, I didn’t go to college, so I don’t know this or that,” I was going to drop out of school just to prove to them that I didn’t.
It was hard because when I was at school I felt like I did not belong. I did not fully embrace college culture because I did not understand it and was scared to try to. Then when I went home, I felt the same way because I was losing touch with my family and friends. If only they all knew how unhappy and stressed out I was. I often cried myself through my misery.
On top of that, I had started college a month prior to the September 11th tragedy. After that tragedy came more. The economy was on a downward spiral and both of my parents were laid off from their jobs. Being away in college only made things that more stressful for my family. It hurt to hear my parents talk about how things were so hard on them. They demanded that I come home—transfer to a school in Georgia. But, there was no chance of that. I had already invested so much, sacrificed too much. There was no turning back in my mind.
Conversations with childhood friends only validated my hesitancy to return home. Their phone calls brought regular updates about how people who I had grown up with had been arrested, killed, dropped out of school, or gotten pregnant.
Pregnant? This was the biggest faux pas in my book. Pregnancy is what had kept my grandmothers from their dreams. Babies are what had sidetracked my mother from her feats. Children are what had kept my older sister’s hopes out of reach. There was no way that I was continuing that curse, especially after overhearing fears whispered between my parents the night before I would depart for college; fevering at the challenge that they had quietly made. They had questioned how long it would take for me to get pregnant and drop out—betted on their own worried doubts.
But why hadn’t I gotten pregnant? Or satisfied any of those other negatives in my equation? Now, I started to feel guilty for being in college. I did not understand why I was one of the lucky ones. It just did not feel right. I had hung around those same people and done some of the same things they did, but still I was able to not be pregnant, be in school—and enrolled in a great school at that. It just did not seem fair.
Over time, I would have to face my internal demons. I would have to start having honest conversations with family members and close friends about the way I was feeling. After some soul searching, I would have to realize how I too was contributing to these feelings that I was having. I also had to accept that things were going to be hard at that moment—that life might not ever really be as easy as I had hoped. But, at the same time, I was living my dream—the life I had chosen and wanted. I had to decide if I was going to take time to cherish it and celebrate all of the good that had occurred in my life or continue to mope around, complaining about all the bad.
I was the first to go to college in my family and that was a good thing. As the first, I was chartering into new territory. I was forging news paths and building bridges for future generations in my family to cross. I realized that it was hard work, but ultimately would be worth it. My diligence would make it easier for the younger generations of my family—for my niece and nephews, cousins, future children and grandchildren, and so on. It might even inspire some people in my own generation and prior to go back to school to get the educational credentials they yearned for.
I realize that somebody had to be light. Why couldn’t it be me?
- CNN International