I was born and raised in Oakland, California, a predominantly Black and brown low-income city just about 25 minutes away from UC Berkeley. I remember the good parts of Oakland as a city where people spent their summers outside, and children hung out with each other to pass the time. But there were other parts that weren’t as nice. Families lived paycheck to paycheck or off electronic benefit transfer cards, and white people came to inhabit our neighborhoods and homes when gentrification started to happen.
Like many other low-income students of color from Oakland, I am a first-generation student. Berkeley was never too far away from home, and even though I rarely visited, I didn’t think it would be that different from Oakland — but it was. People from all over the world with different backgrounds attend UC Berkeley. It sort of flew over my head, but when I got here, I had the biggest culture shock of my life.
On move-in day, I searched the crowd for another Latina but was unsuccessful in finding her. I looked at the list that had my roommates’ names on it, my eyes scanned for a Spanish name. I was nervous. Everything was new to me, and I just needed someone who looked like me with a similar background to swoop in and save me from the unfamiliar. I was shocked to realize that life in Berkeley would be completely different from my life just a few minutes away in Oakland. What I didn’t realize was that this was only the beginning of my continuing culture shock at UC Berkeley.
Just a few days later, on the first day of classes, I saw a girl who was sitting in front of me whip out her debit card and pay her $17,000 pending tuition fee that was accompanied by the words “not yet due.” She put her debit card away and promptly resumed taking notes on the lecture. I remember feeling a sense of shock at how quickly she was able to pay off that money as if her tuition was mere pocket money. I began to imagine what her life might be like. Does she live in a three-story house in a gated community? Are her parents entrepreneurs or lawyers? I couldn’t grasp the fact that this girl sitting in front of me paid, with no hesitation, half of what my parents make in a year.
Every day was another culture shock. After spring break, I overheard students talk about their trips to Cancún and Miami where they stayed in hotels facing the ocean or how they went on a cruise somewhere with their entire family and visited multiple countries. I remember being taken aback by how students who I sit next to in class every day are already living the life that I want for myself, for my family and for my future children. People I sit next to in class are living a dream that I so desperately want. And to this day, that’s mind-blowing to me.
These constant mini culture shocks that I experienced on my own on a daily basis eventually lead to imposter syndrome. Overhearing other students talk about their high school SAT scores or all of the tutoring that they did to get to UC Berkeley makes me feel like I don’t belong in this elitist community. When I listen to students talk about the workload that they had in high school, the internships that they did in different states, I start to feel like their ambitions are different from mine. All of a sudden, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough; I felt like I had never been doing enough.
Every day, my mind raced with questions, fueling my rapidly developing imposter syndrome. What am I doing here? Are my efforts and hard work paying off? Are these wealthy students more prepared for college than me? I was constantly putting myself down and didn’t realize how these passive-aggressive questions to myself were harming my mindset and self-esteem.
During freshman year, the imposter syndrome affected my mental health and grades, but soon enough, I began to realize that I made it to UC Berkeley with limited resources and that, in and of itself, is a major accomplishment. Culture shocks are still a constant thing for me on campus, but imposter syndrome isn’t.
I use the fact that I am here, working hard, with the support of my family and friends to fuel my ambition. Others may be “ahead of me” or be more prepared than I am, but I no longer feel the need to compare myself to other students. With time, I’ve learned how to pick myself back up, and even though a lot of the students had more help with their education than I did, it is not a race. It never has been one. I’ve learned to focus on the race against myself. I am the only person who I need to beat and be better than.
Genesis Alejo writes the Friday column on being a first-generation student. Contact her at [email protected]