Get that cap and gown

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Author’s Foreword: If your family’s version of a fancy dinner involves going to either Olive Garden or Red Lobster, this article most likely relates to you. 

People who know me are regrettably aware of my fondness for Jack in the Box’s $1.29 tacos. To me, personally, it’s the food of the gods. Most of my peers, however, disagree. While I salivate at the thought of those crunchy and cheesy tacos, my peers expectorate. They profess dismay for my questionable dietary choices, some asking that I try their “slow-roasted, prosciutto-stuffed chicken that is complemented with kale and Brussels sprouts, topped with a Swiss chard finish” (honestly, I don’t even know where to get half of those ingredients, and whatever they are, they just took up over half of my word count limit for this article). 

Whenever the majority of my friends and I discuss food, it’s as if we are speaking in different tongues. Of course, our predilections leave curiosity lingering on why I eat the way I eat. After all, I received a STEM degree from UC Berkeley; I am sufficiently versed with the dwindling diversity of my microbiota as a result of indulging in processed meals high in cholesterol, sodium and trans fat. While I pondered the root of my dietary divergence from my peers, I later learned that this is a firsthand manifestation of how one’s social circumstances are inevitably embodied into physiological outcomes. Although I share similarities with my peers, such as age and education level, I am unlike most of them: I grew up in a household that lived from one paycheck to another. I was acclimatized to having my nutritional needs (un)met by the local KFC, the free lunch program provided by my high school and by canned Spam and Vienna sausages. Economic constraints experienced by families from lower socioeconomic status may explain disparities in how taste preferences are formed.

Two years ago, I wrote about how my admission to UC Berkeley serves as proof that my hard work put me on equal footing with my more privileged peers, but now I realize that’s an inaccurate statement. College has been a transformative experience for my growth as an individual — it was the light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel, which offered the possibility for upward mobility. Prior to this academic milestone that some may deem a roaring victory, however, like many other low-income and first-generation students from marginalized communities, I underwent an unusual path to higher education — one that lacked academic insight and support from my predecessors, racial disparity, inadequate self-esteem and financial instability.

My family decided to condense decades of our existence into tiny suitcases, hoping for a chance at the American dream when we emigrated from the Philippines nine years ago. Through a family friend’s generosity, we were able to temporarily stay in a 7 feet by 10 feet spare bedroom, where my older sister and I slept on the floor. Due to my family’s lack of financial capital and familiarity with the convoluted path to higher education in the U.S., college was not expected of me. But I was a stubborn try-hard. When I initially applied for undergraduate admission to UC Berkeley, I only did so because I had an unused application fee waiver. As a Filipina immigrant who mopped the greasy floors of my hometown’s Carl’s Jr. at 3 a.m., I doubted the possibility of earning a place in an elite academic institution. Months later, I received a virtual congratulatory admission letter littered with floating confetti. A combination of multiple grants and scholarships allowed me to attend the institution without debt, but my sense of enthusiasm and gratitude often collided with sweating bullets. 

While my academic journey seems to have concluded with a happy ending, like many other first-generation students, my admission at a prestigious university has anointed me with a newfound, paradoxical identity that left an aftertaste of confusion. My access to a UC Berkeley education has made me scholastically privileged, but the university’s lack of support and homogenous, one-size-fits-all treatment often left me feeling foreign and disenfranchised. Though it was difficult to get into UC Berkeley, staying in it proved to be even harder. Being surrounded by my peers whose parents are doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers, I suffered from impostor syndrome; external evidence of my competence and academic qualifications sporadically seemed meaningless. Some days, I was so lost in my own thoughts that I could have sworn Dwinelle Hall was modeled after my own brain’s neural network.

One UC Berkeley STEM degree later and a graduate degree on the way, there are still days when the threat of being an impostor rattles my place in academia. Having awareness that where I currently stand is, unimaginably, what I would have wished for several years ago keeps me grounded. Having been accustomed to being stuck between a rock and a hard place, I deeply resonate with J.K. Rowling when she stated that rock bottom became the solid foundation on which she rebuilt her life.

For low-income, nontraditional and first-generation students reading this, I wish I could tell you that impostor syndrome will completely subside during your time here. But the truth is that you will constantly question your place not just in academia, but beyond it as well. This is a reality that many of us will face beyond higher education. I encourage you to find a mentor early on who can support your endeavors and understand your frustrations. Keep your chin up and your spine straight; your predecessors did not break their backs for yours to be crooked. I urge you to be proactive: Use your voice, even if it quivers, because sometimes no one else will speak for you. In inevitable moments of darkness, I invite you to utilize the same grit, tenacity and determination that has coursed through your family’s veins for generations.

Individuals hailing from marginalized communities made it into this university lacking the basic privileges that others so freely possess. Many of us had to translate from our native tongues to English for our parents. Or fight opportunistic landlords. At the expense of our childhood being stripped away from us, we had to prematurely become adults in order to survive. We signed off on forms in high school designated for our parents and filled out paperwork for federal and state aid with our limited financial literacy at the age of 16. Having experienced poverty firsthand, students such as ourselves are determined to build ourselves from the ground up. Unfortunately, the process of “building” is not akin to assembling IKEA furniture, where the bolts, screws, parts and pieces of the furniture are readily provided. The process of obtaining a UC Berkeley degree requires a step-by-step manual that many of us do not have, yet its absence does not stop us from adeptly building ourselves from the ground up — and this is an accomplishment that warrants constant celebration.

They say, “When you can’t beat them, join them.” Besides the fact that you aren’t Lindsay Lohan’s character from “Mean Girls,” I dissuade you from taking this advice. You are, arguably, already above your peers who made it here without the barriers and dearth in financial and social capital that you and your family had to endure. As an academic trailblazer, today is not the time to fit into a cliché; you have broken molds your entire life, defying statistics and stereotypes attached to your identity as a marginalized person of color. Your experiences inside and outside of academia make you uniquely dynamic, enabling you to surpass the university’s pioneered holistic review process. You are not lucky to get accepted into UC Berkeley; UC Berkeley is lucky to have you.

In pursuit of my education, I have never been on equal footing with my peers from UC Berkeley — literally and figuratively. My feet were never covered by $135 Birkenstocks made with nubuck leather. Lacking cushion, my callous sole (and soul) armored me with impermeable thick skin — one that leaves me unscathed even when I trudge barefoot on uncharted, bouldered paths. Turns out, I didn’t need soft footbeds lined with plush foam in the first place; even with the generic and secondhand sandals I have from Goodwill, I continue to make it to class just fine (yes, even my 8 a.m.’s). 

I am sure you will, too.

Mariah de Zuzuarregui is a first year graduate student at UC Berkeley.