Being a first-generation student at UC Berkeley made me realize that my entire educational experience has been a series of “first” experiences.
My parents never finished their high school or college degrees in Vietnam, so they carried on the dream of seeing their only daughter graduate from a public university. I grew up with the pressure of being the first born in the United States and the first to go to a four-year college institution. Through learning more about my Vietnamese-American identity, I was able to center my educational experience on redefining my own history.
In 2010, I took an eight-hour Greyhound bus trip as a young freshman in high school to visit UC Berkeley for the first time through the Southeast Asian Student Coalition Summer Institute, or SASC SI, a weeklong educational program catered to youth who are tied to the Southeast Asian refugee experience. UC Berkeley was the first place I learned about the history of my people, one that was never taught in my history courses. During SASC SI, a mentor facilitated a workshop called “Go Back to Where You Came From,” which inspired me to redefine what community means. He taught us that the phrase “go back to where you came from” is often used as a racial slur targeted at immigrants. It is used to make you feel permanently like a foreigner — like despite the fact that you were born here, your smelly food, strict parents and war-torn backgrounds were never wanted in the United States.
When people tell me to “go back to where you came from,” how do I awkwardly tell them that this is my home, and that U.S. imperialism throughout the Vietnam War tore apart the home I never got to learn about. When I got to UC Berkeley, I felt like I didn’t belong. Although nobody said it to my face, I felt like my peers were telling me to “go back to where I came from” because not many of my friends from home go to UC Berkeley. In high school I was proud to be one of three first-generation students who got into UC Berkeley. But when I arrived on campus, that pride turned into feeling ashamed about where I came from because my identity was questioned by others. Growing up in Santa Ana, higher education was rarely a focus of our community. My path to higher education singled me out as a first-generation student, but this first-generation identity rarely acknowledges resilience without justice. I have found it difficult to be a first-generation student at UC Berkeley, because that identity is uplifted only when it centers on resiliency, but the institution will fail in acknowledging my existence when I am not seen as resilient.
At UC Berkeley, so many first-generation students of color, such as myself, are seen as resilient by the institution when we continue to recruit and retain other students of color — work the institution is supposed to do itself. But when first-generation students of color ask for more adequate resources, such as space, counseling or acknowledgment, we are immediately shut down.
I spent most of my time at UC Berkeley in Asian American and Pacific Islander spaces that helped foster the recruitment and retention of underserved populations. As an Asian American, I felt incredibly visible yet invisible at the same time. A majority of the campus is lumped under the term “Asian,” which made it difficult for me to speak up as a Southeast Asian to ask for more. I served as an ASUC Senator representing the campus’s progressive API communities, and I always wondered why almost half of my Senate class identified as Asian American yet a lot of the pressure to speak up landed on me.
After leaving the ASUC, I have spent my senior year regrounding and reminding myself of what it means to build community and “go back to where I came from.” I attained higher education because students before me fought for this space to recognize the importance of providing students with the opportunity to be the first in their family.
I am leaving UC Berkeley with gratitude not for the institution, but for my community and those who are still made invisible. Some may not have the luxury to go back home if home is toxic or not functional, but building community with other first-generation students during my time in college has helped me overcome the fear of going home. Although I do not know where I will be a year after graduation, I know that my heart calls me to one day go back home, to Santa Ana, California. So the next time somebody tells me to go back to where I came from, I’ll let them know that I will go back. We all deserve to have success and return to the people we love.
Kathy Tran is currently an intern at the Multicultural Community Center. She was a Campus Organizing Coordinator for REACH! from 2014-15 and an ASUC Senator from 2015-16. She is graduating with a bachelor’s degree double major in political science and Asian American and Asian Diaspora studies with a minor in education.