Embracing the difficulties of being a first-generation college student

When I applied to colleges two years ago, I never knew that coming from a low-income family was a category that could distinguish me from my peers. The term “first-generation college student” was both daunting and honorable for me. Being the first of my intermediate family to work toward college, I didn’t have much guidance — my mother never finished grade school and my father barely passed high school. I do have half-siblings who attended college, but at the time, I wasn’t close to them and I only saw a glance of their transition from college to the working world. As a result, I was left to figure this out on my own — discovering how my passions could help me choose a major that could lead to a career that I both love and could actually sustain myself with. My goal was to pursue higher education to provide for my family, build a life where I could help others and find a job that includes my passion for writing. Yet, I never thought that the opportunity to go to college would be realistic for me as I knew that I would struggle financially. 

This led me to develop the habit of working hard in high school. During my senior year, I somehow had the sanity to work three jobs, graduate with a 4.25 GPA, be involved in clubs and maintain a social life. Looking back, I knew that it was only a stepping stone toward accomplishing my goals. The experience of establishing this pattern helped me navigate college a bit better, but it was still difficult since I lacked the guidance I needed from my family. During my four years of high school, it was only my mother and me — we were both too busy with our own responsibilities to really sit down and figure out my plan for college. With college application deadlines approaching, time was beginning to run out, making the situation even more daunting for both of us. 

My determination to go to college was fueled by my need to escape the environment that I lived in and to someday be able to buy my mother a house to call her own. Since I was young, I wanted to attend UCLA because it was basically home to me — I was born in the area and my family was close by. I kept thinking about our situation at home, however, and how difficult it would be for me to attend a UC school financially. I kept pushing the doubts about my financial situation into the back of my mind and I continued to move forward with my college applications. When acceptance letters were distributed, the doubts faded quickly. I got accepted into every college I applied to and quickly started planning my trips to attend their welcome events. My top two schools were UCLA and UC Berkeley, and I fell in love with both colleges. As you can guess, I chose UC Berkeley and my loved ones were thrilled. 

Committing to UC Berkeley was daunting. I had to transition from a familiar territory into one that was completely unknown. I was scared that I wasn’t going to find my footing or where I belonged because I was a first-generation college student. The discussions of attending a highly ranked university, moving far away from my loved ones without knowing anyone, haunted me for months. What really got to me was the way my mother bragged and beamed with pride whenever she was asked about my decision to go to college, especially UC Berkeley. I wanted nothing more than to make my family proud, but I was stuck navigating life surrounded by clouds of loneliness and anxiety. 

Much of my anxiety was derived from the stress of my financial situation. With scholarships and FAFSA aside, how was I supposed to afford college? I knew I had to find a job quickly but would I be able to balance that with my studies? What about clubs and a social life? I didn’t think I was going to be able to juggle everything at once and for my first two years, I barely did. There was always a responsibility triumphing over the other. In the last semester of my freshman year, I found myself working 40+ hours a week and skipping lectures. I found myself drowning in my responsibilities and never wanting to admit it to anyone, especially my mother. At this point, I had to remind myself that I didn’t come to college to focus on a temporary job that won’t matter much when I graduate. I tried to focus on why I came to college in the first place. I chose to major in English even though a humanities major is not put on the same pedestal as engineering or computer science. I joined clubs that encompassed my passions and made friends along the way. I eventually found my footing and now have more of a balance between my work, school and social life. 

Now entering my junior year of college, I have come to embrace everything that comes with being a first-generation college student. I always try to remember where I came from, my family background and my accomplishments. I am more than thankful for the opportunities that college has provided me and my constant drive to continue to work toward my dreams.

Contact Gisselle Reyes at [email protected] .