Higher education through the eyes of a 1st-generation student

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Joyce Cam/Staff

On June 6, National Higher Education Day is recognized worldwide to show the importance of obtaining a higher education. As a first-generation student, this importance of getting into college is only intensified as a way to repay our parents for all that they’ve done for us — including leaving their home, being separated from family and working various “unconventional” jobs. Here’s my personal journey to a higher education as a first-generation student.

My parents, along with many other parents, decided to immigrate to the United States in order to provide better opportunities for their future families. As Chinese immigrants, my parents left behind their familiar surroundings and stepped into the land of the unknown. With no education beyond middle school or proficiency in English, my parents arrived in the United States and began working right away to provide for their four soon-to-be children. Soon enough, the Cam family ended up on a farm in the middle of nowhere selling bok choy to local grocery stores.

Since the time I walked through the doors of my first classroom, education always held a special place in my heart. Reading, writing and just learning in general was something that I always strived to do — and always wanted to be the best at. I wanted to be the best not just for my sake but for my parents’ sake. They have always drilled the importance of education over everything else. They were your typical Chinese immigrant parents who always badgered me with, “Why aren’t you studying?” when all I wanted to do was watch “Hannah Montana” on Disney Channel. Really, though, since the day I could comprehend words, my mother would always tell me to go to school and be the best. At 5 years old, I was already determined to be the best kindergartener that Oak View Elementary school had ever seen. As I progressed through elementary school and middle school, I distinctly remember how disappointed I would be to see a B-plus on my report card, making me one grade away from perfect — special shoutout to language arts for being that bitch. Even with almost perfect grades, my parents were ruthless in suggesting that with these grades, I’ll never get into a good college. At the time, I thought this mentality they were pushing on me was unnecessarily harsh, but now, as a 20-year-old college student, I realize that them instilling this mentality was only to prepare me for a better future toward a higher education.

By the time I started high school, I had already set myself on a path to getting into a top college. I wasn’t sure which college, but college was the overall goal I had in life. Coincidentally, when I began my first year at Galt High School, my older sister also began her first year at UC Berkeley — wow! What are the odds, right? With their first daughter getting into the No. 1 public university in the world, my parents concluded that there was no way I couldn’t go to UC Berkeley or a school of a higher merit. With this added (but much-needed) pressure, I loaded my schedule with AP classes, clubs, sports and volunteering to add to my application. I became a 14-year-old high school freshman with graying hairs. Nonetheless, all this stress was worth it if it meant that I could pay back a fraction of what I truly owe my parents. I mean, isn’t that what all first-generation students think? Our main goal is to go to college, get a job and shower our parents with nothing but happiness and stress-free days for the rest of their lives.

After four years of torture, I filled out my college applications and waited to hear back. I got accepted to state schools and a few other UCs, but my main prize was UC Berkeley. I got an email saying that I had been waitlisted for UC Berkeley, and my heart shattered at that moment. I remember opening the email while sick in bed during spring break and feeling so disappointed in myself. Of course, I had other options, but my parents deserved the best option, and to me, UC Berkeley was the best I could give them. I couldn’t help but think, “I should’ve done more.” I really tore myself apart for the next few weeks while I waited to hear whether I would be taken off the waitlist. My parents, however, were really supportive of my other options and were just glad I was going to college. It was May 2, the day before my 18th birthday, and I got an email that my application status was updated. I opened it, and, you guessed it, I had been accepted! I literally screamed and called my mom to tell her the news. I couldn’t see her, but I knew that she was ecstatic — one of the few moments in my life when I knew my mom was genuinely proud of me. I drove home, and we celebrated that night. I felt so accomplished and so proud of myself for getting into college. But this feeling of absolute euphoria wasn’t actually directed at myself but at my parents. I was going to the No. 1 public university in the world; I was setting myself up to give my parents a better future.

Higher education for a first-generation student is much more than an option — it’s a necessity. We grow up unknowingly craving success within education. Although we go through our phases of literally hating school, we keep doing it for our parents. Knowing that they couldn’t have this opportunity for themselves makes us work harder to make sure that their risks weren’t for nothing. To my fellow first-generation students, whichever college you’re at, just know that we’re doing it! We’re making our parents proud, and all the late nights of crying, stressing and studying will be more than worth it to see our parents’ faces on graduation day.

Joyce Cam is the blog editor. Contact Joyce Cam at [email protected].