Each of us have multiple unique identities that have shaped both our life experiences and our paths to Student Affairs. I was fortunate enough to attend a great high school that allowed me to take courses, including many Advanced Placement and other honors courses, that prepared me academically for the rigors of college. I have parents who made sure that my siblings and I could do anything we ever wanted regardless of how much it cost them or the time commitments for them. To the rest of the world, I appear extremely privileged. And in many, many ways, I am. What the outside world did not see was my parents cutting corners on bills and taking care of themselves to make sure we always had everything we wanted or needed. They didn’t see that my dad worked multiple jobs, usually two but sometimes as many as three, while my mom also worked to maintain this lifestyle.
Growing up, I didn’t realize how much my parents struggled. It was not until college, when I attended my beloved small, private liberal arts school, that I realized that most of my friends parents did not work in restaurants or for cleaning companies. Their parents all had college educations and had prominent careers as doctors, lawyers, and teachers. They were all bred to go to college, and I was clueless.
Everything about the college application process was a learning experience. My parents did not know how to apply for colleges, didn’t even consider going on campus visits, and did not have the first clue about filling out the FAFSA. Luckily for me, I have always been a self-sufficient person. I see a problem and like to figure out how to solve it on my own, but this is not the case for all first-generation students.
My undergraduate institution did not have much in terms of support for first-generation students until I had almost completed my degree. It seemed like everyone around me already knew which classes they needed and how to communicate with their advisor, how to get involved in student organizations, and how to find campus jobs. Many of them had parents who attended college and guided them to the right people and resources, whereas I had no one. Throughout my undergraduate experience, I was forced to figure out everything on my own. I began to feel some resentment towards my background and wished that my parents and family understood what I was going through.
I felt as if I was living in two worlds: the world of college and the world with my family. I am a learner, I enjoy the process of learning, and I love sharing what I have learned with others. Whenever I tried to share what I was learning in my courses with certain members of my family, they said that I was just trying to show off or exert my intelligence over them. I soon felt like I could not share my college experience with the people I cared about. Thankfully, I found many groups on campus that gave me a sense of family and belonging. While my membership in these organizations helped to develop me into a more confident person and gave me a support system to help as I navigated college life, it did cause tension between my two worlds.
Unlike many first-generation students, I was able to complete my undergraduate degree. My parents loved to tell people that I was going to be a counseling psychologist, but over time, I realized that wasn’t really what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I loved my psychology classes, but there was something missing. I eventually decided that I wanted to pursue a career in Student Affairs. It’s difficult to explain to anyone what it means to work in Student Affairs, but it is even more difficult to explain to anyone that has never attended college. Even as I begin my second year in my master’s program, my parents have no concept of what it is that I want to do with the rest of my life. If you asked me a year ago what I wanted to do when I graduate, my answer was very different than it is today. I was certain that I wanted to work in Greek Life or in something similar to TRiO. Every project I have completed in graduate school related to special student populations has been about first generation students. The more I learn, the more I want to help. It has taken me a long time, but I finally realized, I can help first generation students no matter which area I choose to work in. I have amazing conversations with students while working in Career Services where I can help them navigate the very same issues I had as an undergrad. I’m still unsure which area I want to work in, but I know that this population is near and dear to my heart and I will continue to help or be a support to them in any way that I can.