As a first-generation child and student, I had to be independent and ambitious at a young age. With immigrant parents who are working to assimilate into American culture, I needed to develop these traits quickly to help my mom and dad. I needed to be a translator and an advocate for them at the hospital, on public transportation, at meetings and more. It was already stressful to have my parents depend on me, but I also needed to advocate for myself and my education. As the only member of the family who spoke English fluently, I was the only one who knew what was going on at school and what I needed help with; I was the only one who could communicate these things to someone.
My earliest memory of translating was in elementary school, during a parent-teacher conference about my grades. Although students were not obligated to attend these mandatory meetings, I needed to translate for my mom. I was responsible for organizing these meetings, setting them up and communicating with my teacher and parents about an appropriate time. My mom relied on me for the amount of information that she could understand, so I made it a priority to be honest with her. Our open dialogue encouraged me to be honest with her about my education. I needed to have the best grades and be on my best behavior so that when I translated this to her, she’d be proud.
While my parents supported me from home, they didn’t know much about the education system in the United States. So from an early age, I realized that I had to be my own advocate for my education. I had to take initiative when it came to my academic success or I wouldn’t get what I needed for my future. It’s a lot of pressure to feel responsible for my parents’ well-being and future. I had this notion that if I achieved academic success then I would be able to uplift my family by providing for them one day. It wasn’t enough to receive an A in a class — I had to complete the extra credit assignment to aim for an A-plus. I made sure to do summer programs and internships throughout the year to stay involved in my community. I was also an athlete in high school and would travel to multiple states for tournaments. My ambition to succeed grew because my parents had done so much for me, and I felt like it was my responsibility to get my parents the life they deserved.
My drive to push myself in school came from my dad. To this day, he works 9-to-5 shifts, six days a week, at the same furniture store he has worked at for more than 20 years. He is our only source of income and how my mom manages to use his single check to pay for rent, groceries, utilities and everything else is beyond me. This pressure has always been in the back of my mind, but once arriving at UC Berkeley, it was thrown right in my face. It felt like once I stepped on campus, I was already juggling school and work commitments. I began to feel like I was incapable of succeeding at this institution. It was all too new. It was a new world that my family and I knew nothing about.
Soon enough, I was consumed by my chaotic schedule. I was always on campus doing work, speed-walking from one class to another and rarely had any time to visit home, even though I was only a few BART stops away. Slowly, I began to detach from reality. I kept my AirPods on to avoid talking to people, I’d stopped raising my hand in class, stopped asking for help from my peers, and even avoided hanging out with my friends. I was absorbed in life as a stressed and depressed college student who worked at Starbucks to pay for her books and groceries, drowning with the weight of supporting her parents on her shoulders. I thought that if I kept my head buried in work, stayed focused and worked all the time then I’d succeed here. I felt guilty for engaging in social interactions because I thought I’d only be wasting time that I could have been using to study or do homework. I began to believe that I wasn’t entitled to have fun.
As a first-generation student, the stakes were higher. I had to do work and succeed in school to get my parents out of the working class one day. There was no time for fun. I wasn’t thinking about how only having my brain on “go mode” and no other mode would affect my mental and physical health. But I realize now that I have to make time for my own well-being. I started off by writing down healthy habits that I had before college but had ditched. I also thought of new ones and began to make plans with friends to go out again. I started attending art shows, parties, events that happened here at UC Berkeley and so much more. I took my AirPods out as I walked from class to class to have more opportunities to have a conversation with someone and to force myself to stop avoiding people.
Today, after working on bettering my mental health and learning to be present by appreciating my surroundings, I feel better, happier, clear-minded, focused and ready for what’s next, which is what I wanted to feel all along. After all, I can only advocate for my parents if I take care of myself.
Genesis Alejo writes the Friday column on being a first-generation student. Contact her at [email protected].