Wednesday, July 16, 2014

An open letter to first generation college students


My name is Isa and I'm a first generation college graduate. 

Traditionally, that means I was the first in my family to get a bachelor's degree. I also have a master's degree.

I started in community college, and my sophomore year I won the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship, which provided me $30,000 per year to finish my bachelor's degree and $50,000 for a master's degree.

I fell weak at the knees and wept when I found out the news. All that kept running through my head was this:

"People like me don't get master's degrees."

Where did that come from? I later thought.

I was a high achiever. And this was America for goodness sake. I could be anything I wanted to be, even President, right?

But somewhere, deep down, in a place I didn't even know existed, I had internalized the messages, the media, and the scripts I'd seen around me.

Logically, anyone who succeeds is a "person" like me. I knew that of course. But, logical or not, we tend to group ourselves into types of people, and sometimes we tell ourselves what we can or cannot do based on that.

And worst of all, sometimes others (e.g. society) try to group us or tell us what we can or cannot do.


None of my grandparents had an education past the fourth grade. I wouldn't be here today if not for their hard work.

Also, I'm biracial: one parent is Puerto Rican and the other is White. When asked my race I was always confused that I had to check "White." I didn't feel totally White. Then when I got to ethnicity I could check Hispanic. Though I never totally felt like that either; I loved rice and beans, but I didn't speak Spanish and couldn't, for the life of me, roll my r's.

 I never felt like I knew how to be politically correct even when talking about myself. I still don't.

So when the phrase"people like me" popped into my head for the first time, I think I had somehow internalized all of the above. While I was still trying to figure out who I was, somewhere without my knowing it I had put a ceiling on myself.

I was recently at a Harvard Institute on the Achievement Gap and one of the professors told a story about the fleas in a glass jar experiment. Essentially, fleas were put in a jar without a lid and they quickly jumped out. They were put back in, this time with a lid. They tried to jump out but were stopped by the lid.

Eventually, the fleas adjusted their jumping height so they wouldn't hit the lid. When the experimenter took the lid off, the fleas didn't jump out. They couldn't understand the limits were gone because they'd already adjusted their expectations.


I'm writing this crazy letter (off the beaten path from my normal tone) because I just finished reading a book on youth development that talked about racial and ethnic identity development as well as what people go through when they are socially mobile (i.e. first generation college students who break barriers in their family).

The book poignantly put into words a certain moments in  my university experience that I never quite understood.

Moments where I couldn't figure out why I didn't feel like I had any really close friends. Moments where I didn't understand why I wasn't bonding with people. Moments when I had to look up what Seven for All Mankind was (a humanities course?) and moments where I thought maybe something was wrong with me.

The book I just finished on development made me want to cry. For good reasons. I felt validated. It talked about how those who break barriers and are socially mobile can feel a lot of strife when they make that leap, especially when they are the first in their family to do so or are transcending to an economically/socially "upperclass" place that is foreign and uncomfortable.

After reading this, no joke, I ran across my apartment to my computer. And that brings me to this moment.

I realized if I felt this way after reading this passage then there must be others who feel the same, and I can't bear that they might have to experience another second of feeling alone in this.

I wish I could tell you, like in my traditional blog posts, exactly what to do to make this better. To fit in as you break barriers. To magically feel comfortable all the time.

But I can't.

What I can tell you is this:

It will be uncomfortable. It will be hard. But here is what I want  you to remember.

In moments when you feel like you aren't fitting in, it most likely means you're a trailblazer.

I'm going to say that again:

In moments when you feel like you aren't fitting in, it most likely means you're a trailblazer.

This is the part of the American Dream no one really talks about. That sometimes it's really uncomfortable and really hard and sometimes you wonder why you're striving so much in the first place, if it's really worth it.

That's why I'm writing this. For any of you who've ever felt that. I want to tell you three very important things, so listen closely:

1) You are not alone.

2) Keep going.

3) Thank you.

Thank you for doing this. For getting through the tough stuff. For not giving up. Because when you keep going you become one more person for another to look to and say "hey, people like me can do this!"

It defies all logic. We know we're not fundamentally different based on how we look or how much money we have.

But it doesn't change the fact that it's powerful and affirming to have a role model you can identify with. And for too may groups of people, whether self-defined or societally defined, that's not always the case in our mass mediated culture.

So if you can't find the role model, the person like you doing what you're doing, or the person like you at your college, it just might mean you're doing something profoundly important for all of us.

Don't stop.



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