From One First-Generation Student to Another: Do It for You

By Gabriella Fonseca

“You know, I want you to go away; I think it would be good for you.” 

When my father said those words the summer before my senior year of high school, I panicked. I thought my next step would be community college. Friends had started their college research junior year. I would have to run to catch up. And now that my father had put the idea on the table, I added it to the expectations I had for myself as a child of immigrants who felt immense pressure to carry the academic torch for my family. 

I threw myself into the application process, applying to multiple schools I had never heard of before. My dad helped me in every way possible, but as someone who came to the United States when he was 18 and went right to work, he had never stepped foot in an American school. So, I was left to figure out most of the admissions process on my own, which meant a lot of trial and error. 

And I was plagued by many beliefs that limited where I saw myself. I believed that four-year institutions were only for Ivy League geniuses and that I shouldn’t be applying to them. Or that I wasn’t worth the opportunities that were starting to line up in front of me. 

Despite these perceived limitations, there was one thing I knew: I had to go to college. It was the only option for me to be “successful.” Despite these limiting beliefs—and much to my and my family’s excitement—I got accepted.

What I Learned About College as a First-Generation Student

As soon as I stepped onto campus, I worked extremely hard, reaching milestones I never thought were possible. And yet I never really gave myself the recognition I deserved. Instead, I felt a tremendous amount of imposter syndrome and viewed my accomplishments as minor successes, since it was “my responsibility as a student.” I never let myself celebrate the hard work I put into applying to—and working at—college. 

And I felt really alone because my peers and family couldn’t relate to what I was going through. What I wish I had, above all, was someone who understood my experience. I hope I can do that for you.

What I Want vs. Family Expectations

Once I got to college, I had a major realization: I was doing everything for my parents and family. I wanted to be successful and make them proud. I wanted to show them that their sacrifices of leaving home were worth it, and let them share in my accomplishments. What I didn’t think about was making myself proud, and what I didn’t realize was how burned out I had become.

I began to experience extreme anxiety, self-doubt, and even depression, so I sought out mental health services at my college. In therapy, I realized that I was stuck in people-pleasing mode and fixated on gaining my father’s validation. I was setting goals to meet his unsaid expectations, not my own desires, and it led me to become irritable and resentful all the time. 

I was always arguing with my family, until one day I told my father I was doing all of this to please him. He looked at me and said, “If you are doing this for me, you are doing it for the wrong reasons.” 

That was the moment I made a switch. With the support of my therapist, I was able to do a complete 180 and realize that my college experience was for me and only me. Yes, I still struggle to balance my own desires with family and cultural pressures, but I recognize it when it happens and can work to get back to centering myself.

3 Tips for First-Generation College Students

In the hopes that other first-generation students might center themselves earlier in their college experience (or even before!), I share these hard-earned bits of wisdom:

Know You Are Your Own Person 

I constantly compared my journey with my family members’ journeys. I felt I had to be the best version of all of them combined. But what I realized—through my great support systems—is that I am going through my own journey and am entitled to go through it in any way I imagine. There is no set rule or path I have to follow; the path is mine to create.

Speak Up and Speak Out

First-gen students and those in marginalized communities, such as women, are entitled to take up space. Never let anyone diminish the voice that you create for yourself. This is a skill set that won’t develop overnight, and that’s OK. However, it’s important to strive to keep that advocacy for yourself strong, because no one will defend you better than you. 

As you find that voice, I encourage you to speak out for others, as well. For those in more privileged positions, it’s important to use that power in the fight against inequity and speak alongside others who rarely get the chance to use their voices. Ask the questions no one asks them, empathize with their experiences, and acknowledge how your experiences may have influenced some of their hardships. 

Ask for—and Make Use of—All Support Available to You

If you have a question, ask. If you need a resource center, go to it. If you need help, send the email. Use all the resources that are available to you in any area where you need support, whether professional, social, emotional, academic, or something else. 

These places and people are here to help, and in academic or professional settings, most of those people get paid to help you. Utilize them in any way you possibly need. They are there to help you—and all students—succeed. Never be ashamed or afraid to ask for the help you deserve. 

If you told me 10 years ago that I would be where I am today, I would have laughed out of disbelief. I graduated college with a 4.0 GPA. I served as a peer facilitator of a mental health and wellness club, and I’m a member of seven honor societies and on the executive board of three. The journey was hard and full of moments I felt I would never escape, but it will forever be worth it. 

I hope you can connect to this truth: Your community is out there. Find them—you are worth it.

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