How I Overcame the Pressure to Be Perfect as a First-Generation Student

By Eden Getahun

I am made from my mother’s eyes, my father’s smile, and a prayer

Breathed into existence on the winds of the long journey from home

I am crafted of starlight and wishes, a shooting star burning bright with my parents’ desire 

A promise of the future they set their home ablaze to watch streak by

I am designed from dreams and downpour, drowning under the weight of their expectations

Suffocating as they water the hope for the future they planted in me

I am made of earth and yearning, still as they wait for me to bloom into the fruits of their labor

Rooted to the ground and longing for the sky 

If asked to describe the experience of being a first-generation college student in one word, I would be quick with my answer: pressure. The pressure to make your family proud, the pressure to be a good role model, the pressure to be perfect. These expectations defined me—overruling my own wants and needs in an endless quest to satisfy those around me.  

As someone who is not only first-generation, but also the eldest daughter of immigrants, I have become accustomed to that weight. I often felt as if my life was not my own, but defined by the hopes and dreams my parents had placed on—and into—me. I was a vessel that contained their future. They were willing to give up everything—friends, family, culture, and homeland—to achieve the future they wanted for me. These expectations have loomed over me like a shadow since birth, every move motivated by a fierce desire to make my parents proud and ensure they felt their sacrifice was worth it.

They made it clear I had one job: do well in school. That may sound like a simple goal, but when it becomes your only goal, there is no room for your emotional health. I placed academic validation above all else—including my mental health—determined to make my parents proud the only way I knew how. I threw myself into it with a fervor, academics and extracurriculars defining my life until my worth became rooted in my ability to achieve success. 

I look back now with so much compassion for myself—compassion I wish I had the capacity to develop sooner. I wish I could have warned myself of the burnout that was coming, of the self-doubt that would plague me as I entered college, of the mental stress the path of academic prowess put me under. I wish there had been someone to give me advice, hold my hand through the process, and tell me everything was going to be OK. 

Hindsight is always 20/20 though. Below are four pieces of advice I would give the younger me and other first-generation college students so they can better manage stress and mental health challenges.

Don’t Sacrifice Your Life for Others

My identity is a source of extreme pride for me. I cherish the homeland my parents said goodbye to in order to give me the opportunities I have today, and I relish the culture they work hard to keep me connected to. But it took time, hard work, and support to untie that history from the unspoken obligations it came with. My parents’ sacrifice filled me with a feeling of indebtedness, turning me into a chronic people-pleaser as I internalized gratefulness as putting the needs of others before my own. As I navigated conflicts with friends in college, I learned that being a “people-pleaser” is code for “not having boundaries” and how a mindset of sacrifice can have detrimental consequences.

As much of a priority as making my parents happy is, I have learned I am the only one who has to deal with the consequences of my actions. I have learned to trust my intuition, let go of the fear of disappointing them, and embrace the endless possibilities for my future. I’ll make them proud along the way, rather than their pride being the end goal.

The Suffering of Others Does Not Reduce Yours

My childhood was filled with tales of my parents’ hardships. Complaints about the commute to school were met with stories of mile-long hikes to school, treading barefoot through rivers and mud. Moans about annoying teachers were countered with anecdotes about cruel ones who called students to the front of the class to get hit and embarrassed. Whines about unfairness lead to chronicles of oppressive government regimes and homelands fled to escape them, coming to America in search of a better life. 

In the face of all that tragedy, it felt like there was no space for my struggle. I had a loving family, food, and a roof over my head—what else could I possibly ask for? But I came to realize that my physical needs were well met, but my emotional needs were neglected—not only by my parents, but also by me. I wrote off my challenges as not that serious, and told myself I didn’t need any help to resolve my issues. I’ve come to realize, however, that my parents’ suffering does not mean I should have any less space to express mine. The sacrifices my parents made enabled me to experience these issues instead of the very challenge of survival they faced. I have come to embrace my issues, facing them head on rather than pretending they don’t exist. That lessens their power—and strengthens mine.

You Have Been Strong Long Enough, and it’s OK to Be Vulnerable

As the eldest daughter, I was not only my parents’ pride and joy, but I was also expected to be a role model for my sisters. That meant constantly putting on a brave face and acting like I had all the answers at a time when my parents may not have been able to provide them. I was the level-headed one, the one who knew what to do. How could I possibly admit I was struggling when I was supposed to be a source of strength? Reaching out for help would be showing weakness, so I closed myself up. I was determined to go about it the way I had everything else: alone. 

Here is what I know now and want to say to you: You have worked to serve others and put on a brave face for them long enough. Let those who love you support you in turn. There is nothing wrong with vulnerability. Asking for help does not make you weak. It is a sign of strength, because you recognize how others can help you succeed. Let them give you the same care you gave to their hopes and dreams.

We Are All Healing, so Give Your Family Some Grace

Mental health has never been a common conversation topic in my household. Initially it was met with confusion. I was physically OK, so what else could I need? Religion and a long walk were the perfect remedies for mental health issues, and no other resources were discussed. When I was younger, I resented feeling as if my needs were not being met and never having the vocabulary to tell my parents I needed support. 

As I got older, I realized the language I lacked was one they had never learned. Our generation is lucky. Even when our families do not have the understanding or the words to support us through our experiences, there are plenty of places where you can learn them—in school, on social media, and on TV. Conversations about mental health are happening all around us, teaching us of the importance of putting ourselves first and giving us the dictionary to define what we are feeling. Survival was the primary concern for my parents, not mental health. As I’ve gotten older, I have learned to forgive and work with them—teaching them about mental health as I learn, rather than resenting them for not having access to the information I have now. 

The other day, my little sister complained to me about my mom telling her to go to therapy. I laughed, but I fought back the tears that threatened to choke me. I was ecstatic. My hard work had gotten through to my parents. They had finally come to understand mental health as tangible. Yet I couldn’t help but wish I didn’t have to be the one to teach them—that they could have come to me ready with the vocabulary. But that’s what it means to be first-generation. It’s a constant process of learning and growing with your parents, of realizing we are all just doing the best with the tools we have.

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