Poetry for first-generation students at UC Berkeley

Cal in Color

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As incoming freshmen in college, we feel like we need to make friends. In order to survive an often turbulent freshman year, we need to find people we can connect with. For most of us, it’s not a problem, and we find a crowd to hang out with right away; for others, it’s a longer process. For someone who comes into an institution, such as UC Berkeley, as the first person in their family to attend college, with a billion expectations and burdens on their back, it’s not as easy. Finding someone to relate to on a personal level and be open with is a lot more difficult than it should be.

As an incoming freshman at UC Berkeley, this was something I struggled with. My first semester was difficult because I couldn’t find people I could connect with. Maybe part of the fault was mine; I wasn’t too involved on campus, as I was in Fall Program for Freshmen. Apart from that, getting accustomed to life on campus took longer than I expected.  

By my second semester, I decided to start looking for friends by enrolling in classes in which the majority of the students would be people of color. I figured that since I come from a predominantly Black and brown community, I would have more in common with students of color than with the white students on campus. I hopped on to the UC Berkeley classes website and looked for Chicano studies classes and African American studies classes, but due to some mix-ups with my financial aid, I enrolled in classes late, so most of the classes that I wanted to take were already full or had a waitlist.

Luckily enough, I scrolled down and found one of Aya de León’s Poetry for the People classes. I read the class information, looked at Rate My Professors and concluded that this class was dope and so was de León, so I enrolled. I knew I was going to get a lot out of the class, but I hadn’t actually realized how much was in store for me: knowledge, healing and personal empowerment.

On the first day of class, I walked in and saw only familiar Black and brown faces, and I instantly felt relieved. I sat down, and in that moment, I realized I was comfortable. I was looking around, hoping to make friends with someone instead of keeping my head buried in my phone, hiding the nerves as I did in other classes. This was the first class I had taken at UC Berkeley in which a majority of the students were people of color, and I had forgotten how much it meant to have a slice of my original life.

In my class discussion group, the student demographic included many first-generation students with immigrant parents, students who were immigrants themselves and a large amount of low-income students. Our discussions consisted of us sharing our poems and elaborating on the experiences that we touched on in them. As the semester went on, we began to open up to one another and got pretty close, which was bound to happen after we spent weeks talking about the adversities that we faced and sharing our past traumas. We had a community within our discussion group and in lecture. We were able to be vulnerable with one another because the room just felt safe enough to. It was the perfect place to heal and help others heal, but like all healing processes, it was hard and very emotional. 

Writing poetry, sharing it with people and listening to other people’s poems helped me get through culture shock and imposter syndrome. I was empowered by the support from de León and other students because, as human beings, we find comfort in the familiar. We need people who we can relate to on a personal level and share our experiences and feelings with; we need to feel understood by someone else.

In my humble opinion, I’ve come to realize that classes, such as Poetry for the People classes, are essential in the next step toward emotional and mental growth as a first-generation student of color at UC Berkeley. Not only was I able to safely address my traumas and adversities, but I had the opportunity to work with other great poets and create a community with them. I have come to learn that a community of students supporting each other is invaluable and necessary for every student to have. While our generation has this “I don’t need anyone’s help, I can do this on my own” mentality that keeps us from asking for help, we need to realize that we can’t do this life thing all alone — we are not meant to. As a stubborn person, I learned this the hard way, but I thank Poetry for the People for handing me the tools to get the help that I needed from others.

Genesis Alejo writes the Friday column on being a first-generation student. Contact her at [email protected].org.