This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
I am first-generation college graduate whose family immigrated to this country with hopes of a better future. I was born in the Dominican Republic to a working-class family with an agricultural background. While living in my native country I was never interested in school and was not forced to attend. I arrived in the United States around the age of five and to my dismay, I did not have a choice: I had to attend school. I went from having an oppositional relationship with education to becoming a “professional student,” as my family likes to call me.
Finding Myself in a New Country
I grew up in Perth Amboy, an urban working-class city in central New Jersey. Throughout my childhood I went to public schools with individuals from very similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds. I started off as a horrible student for many reasons, mainly because as an immigrant to this country, I didn’t understand the culture. My English deficiency in the first and second grade took a toll on my self-esteem and further perpetuated my dislike for school. I was placed in bilingual classes and the course materials were not at the same level as those studied by my peers. After much negotiation with my mother and the school, I persuaded them to give me the opportunity to enroll in “regular” classes–in other words, classes taught in English. That is when I realized that I had to take ownership of my education.
My Educational Journey
Throughout my early years I went from being the “problem kid” in class to a teacher’s pet. I remember having to work so hard to understand the materials and at times becoming frustrated because I could not ask my parents for help. Later on, I learned that neither of my parents had even completed high school. After accepting the fact that I would have to work even harder than most, I began to embrace the challenge and it became my motivation. I wanted to make my parents proud and prove to myself that I could succeed academically against all odds.
I also realized that many of my close friends were in a similar situations. Most of us ended up attending the same university, Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The college application process is still a blur for me because I honestly had no idea what I was doing at the time. I remember doing a lot of research on my own and asking my friends about their own processes. I felt very fortunate to have been accepted to the school of my choice and little did I know that it would forever change my life.
I had the privilege of being part of the Rutgers College Educational Opportunity Fund Program (EOF) throughout my college career. This program offers first-generation students the resources to succeed academically and personally. Some of the staff of this program became my support system, my home away from home and my lifelong mentors. I wanted to be just like them: I wanted to positively impact underrepresented students in college and I needed to pay it forward. This is when I knew that I wanted a career in higher education and I would have to pursue a master’s degree. I was accepted into the Master of Social Work program at Rutgers. After completing my master’s program I was hired full time at Rutgers and absolutely loved my job!
How Embracing Being First-Gen Changed My Life
After about a year of working full time, I started to ponder the idea of pursuing my doctorate. I was very fortunate to have a great mentor as my first supervisor out of graduate school. He was in the last stages of his doctorate and we spent a lot of time discussing his educational journey. After much thought I decided to take the plunge, but was beyond terrified! I had always been a good student; while never the smartest, I worked very hard. I was afraid of not being accepted into the doctoral program and even more terrified about the dissertation process that I heard so much about. I was accepted and was ecstatic, but then reality began to sink in: I was going to continue to work full time while pursuing my doctorate. I knew this was going to be the most difficult process I had ever endured, but there was no turning back. As I began to finish my coursework it became clear to me that I wanted to research something that was meaningful. After many conversations with my adviser and mentors I knew what I wanted to spend the next couple of years researching first-generation students. I knew that my journey was not unique; there were other students that had experienced similar obstacles and were able to overcome them. I wanted to generate research that positively highlighted the experiences of academically-resilient first-generation Latinas in college.
While conducting my research I became convinced that working with first-generation students was truly my passion. After completing my doctorate I set out to search for positions that would bring me both professional and personal fulfillment. Early last spring I ran across a position at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts: an associate dean of the college with a focus on first-generation students. I could not believe it, there was an actual position working with the student population that I specifically wanted to work with! I was nervous about the idea of having to move hours away from all of my support networks, but I knew deep down inside that I had to take the chance. I believe that when you are truly passionate about something, everything begins to fall into place.
I began my new position as Associate Dean and Dean of First Generation Initiatives at Williams College in July and it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. I look forward to coming to work every day and being around motivated students fuels my soul. Looking back on my journey, I am beyond grateful that my mentors throughout the years always empowered me and pushed me to embrace who I was. I am a first-generation immigrant and I have defied the odds despite the many barriers I encountered. I am a success story and stories like mine are rarely told. Always tell your story! You never know who is listening.