This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
It was in high school that I began to fully understand the disadvantages that came with being a first-generation student: I realized that the cultural and linguistic barriers my parents faced greatly limited their ability to be involved in my academic development. I was also poor, which made me feel out of place at my elite boarding school, where the majority of my classmates came from upper-middle class backgrounds. During this time, I was terribly embarrassed of my identity as a first-generation student and did everything I could to hide from it.
Now, as I start my second year of college at Harvard, I take immense pride in my identity as a first-generation student. This transformation in perspective is, in part, due to meeting other first-gens who are kind, wonderful and talented people. More importantly, I started to see that many of my personal strengths were grounded in my experience as a first-generation student.
I don’t want to underestimate the difficulty or seriousness of the challenges that first-generation students face, but I also think we can take time to reflect on how being first-gens has cultivated certain skills that we should be proud of. Here are some examples that I think capture what it means to be a first-gen, and what first-gens are capable of achieving.
Raising Awareness Through Cross-Cultural Competency Skills
For many first-gens, the culture at home can be entirely different from the one at school or work, and navigating these two cultures is not easy. But gradually, we adapt and become experts in the language, customs and practices of each — which allows us to build cross-cultural competency skills. With these skills, I can help my family at home learn about the culture in Boston, and conversely, I can teach my college friends about my own history and culture. In this way, we can help people understand each other by sharing our perspectives and insights.
Basic Home Skills
Sometimes, I meet people who are experts at calculus or chemistry, but don’t know how to do laundry, cook or even wash the dishes. I don’t think this is the case for most first-gens because many of us have had plenty of practice helping at home. Although you may dread doing chores, know that it’s helping you develop skills to become a much more independent person.
Needing Less and Appreciating What We Have
When you spend your entire life shopping on a budget, you quickly learn to calculate how much you can afford to spend and how necessary it is for you to buy certain products. In addition to being smart consumers, my first-gen friends and I are also more grateful for what we already have. Often, I find that I don’t need as many material things as my privileged peers do to be happy.
Agents of Change for Our Communities
I see first-gen students as individuals with real potential for creating change in their communities. Higher education opens the door to many opportunities for self-growth. We can use the skills and lessons we’ve learned from school to help better our communities, whether through community service projects or engaging in social and political issues.
It takes an enormous amount of courage to be the first in your family to attend college. Sometimes, it can seem like a daunting, or even impossible, task. However, time and time again, first-generation students brave the challenges and take life by storm. First-gens are able to adapt to change, become thoughtful and dynamic leaders, and inspire others.
This part of my identity has played an integral role in my life experience, and I know I wouldn’t be the same person I am today if I wasn’t a first-gen. To all my first-gen brothers and sisters out there — I’m so proud of you. Keep fighting, and never let your circumstances stand in the way of your dreams.