Skipping stones: Being a 1st-generation student

Karin Goh/File

Applying to colleges was a scary time for us all. Despite waves of self-doubt, we took a leap of faith and applied to UC Berkeley. But can you imagine jumping headfirst in a sea of uncertainty and packing up everything you own to go to a new country? For some of us, our parents did just that in coming to the United States in hope of better lives. With that knowledge in tow, being a first-generation student at an institution such as UC Berkeley can feel like a catch-22.

The first-generation experience is one that is complex and different for many students here. For some of us, our parents never finished their high school degrees or they might have received their college degrees in their home countries. The term “first generation” also carries implications of one’s socioeconomic status, which is apparently taboo to talk about.

Growing up having to sometimes translate for parents that don’t speak English isn’t easy. Often times, our own feelings get lost in translation. Besides language, there are other cultural barriers that keep us from understanding each other. Sometimes, there are expectations to pursue a degree in a certain field our parents deem “practical” for the sake of financial security. When our parents chased after the American dream, they didn’t mean to superimpose their own goals on us, but sometimes they did.

Then, there’s a matter of the imposter syndrome. According to psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance, who first coined the term 30 years ago, imposter syndrome occurs when high achievers feel like imposters because they can’t own up to their own success. As first-generation students who do feel this way, we think we got lucky in our accomplishments and feel afraid that we are living a lie. We also berate ourselves when we feel like we aren’t doing as well as we should. We keep asking ourselves, “Do I belong here? Do I deserve to be here?” How do we quiet these qualms when they’re crushing us from the inside?

On this journey of self-discovery, we are intrepid voyagers finding out so much about who we are — and none of that Christopher Columbus bullshit. Reconciling with the differences between our parents and ourselves is part of this journey. Our parents have sacrificed so much to come here that we feel like we owe them a lot in return. Giving back to them in the form of good grades can be hard when getting straight As feels nearly impossible here. We sometimes keep our phone calls to our parents short so they don’t detect that our voices are starting to break on the other line because of academic stress.

Our identities are constantly being reconstructed in college, so evolving without forgetting our roots is a difficult process. Finding ways to express gratitude without the guilt isn’t easy. Being a trailblazer isn’t easy. It never is quite easy being first. Although our parents, siblings and grandparents may not have gotten their bachelor’s degrees in the United States, it’s an incredible feeling to be able to start our own legacies at the end of the day.

In a lot of ways, we are skipping stones. Our parents threw us out into the world, not knowing how many times or how high we would bounce, but they always hoped that we would. Before we sink, we are given the opportunity to prove to ourselves that we can go further than we ever thought we could. Little did our parents know, we would land here in Strawberry Creek, where we can see how the ripple effect can pave the way for future generations and give them more opportunities to prosper. When some of us Golden Bears walk the stage at graduation in May, seeing our parents’ proud faces in the stands can make trusting our struggles worth it.

Contact Abigail Balingit at [email protected].