My grandparents did not go to college. Neither set of them — not on my father’s side, not on my mother’s side. My parents did not to college either, at least not immediately. In fact, there is only one university, the University of the Virgin Islands, in my birthplace and neither my grandparents nor my parents found their way there. However, I always knew I was going to college. There was not a conversation I had with my parents about post-high school plans that did not include college. Still, there were a lot of gaps in my college plans. I had no idea how I was going to afford college. I had no idea how to apply for college. I had no idea what to expect from college. Although my parents were more than supportive, they had no experience with attending college straight out of high school. Still, my parents could offer support in other areas. While neither of my parents dived into college after high school, they both attended college as non-traditional students throughout my childhood and adolescence. My parents’ college experience puts me in this odd class of first generation(ish) students who do not have the advantage of having parents with the traditional college experience, but still reap the benefits of parents with post-secondary education.
Sometimes it feels misleading to check the boxes next to parents’ education level that read “master’s degree." Sure, both of my parents have master’s degrees and I am proud of their accomplishments, but that box leaves out a much larger story. That box does not tell the tale of my dad working a full-time job and still coming home to do homework. That box does not tell the tale of my mom staying up past midnight writing essays while I sleep. That box does not tell the full story of the money, sacrifice and hard work that my parents put in to receive a higher education while acting as full-time parents and full-time employees. This larger story affects the way I navigate through college. It pushes me to work harder and longer than most of my peers. After witnessing first-hand the difficulties of returning to college after years out of academia, it motivates me to learn and study while all the information is fresh in my mind. My parents’ experience also makes me appreciate the privilege I have to study in college without needing to work (also, thank you to scholarships). Most importantly, as a first generation(ish) student, I have adopted a no-excuse attitude. If my parents can raise two children, work a full-time job and attend college full-time, then I can take 18 credit hours and try to get eight hours of sleep every night.
My parents are superheroes, at least in my mind, but they cannot save the day all the time. When I needed money for college, my parents could not hand me $26,000 in tuition. They were already in their own student debt and college is crazy expensive anyway. I had to fund my college education through scholarships. As per usual, my parents were supportive, but they had no experience with applying for a big-name scholarship like I did. I had to go beyond my family and seek guidance from teachers to help with recommendation letters and the entire application process in general. Although my parents knew the standards for a college essay, they did not know the standards for a college application essay in the 21st century. I literally spent hours in different classrooms of my AP teachers asking for advice on college applications because they had more relevant information than my parents. Even past the application process, there were areas my parents did not have experience with that affect my college experience.
Neither of my parents experienced on-campus housing. When it came time to shop for my dorm room, my parents and I were all figuring it out together. I still remember the day my dad came home excited because he found two pillows on sale that he thought would be perfect for my dorm room. I also remember us arguing about the necessity of an iron and ironing board (turns out he was right — I would need to iron clothes in college). There was also the full-room shakedown my mom did a week after I moved in to make sure my dad helped me move in “correctly." More notably, there was the moment my mom discovered I was sharing a mini fridge with my roommate. She ordered a mini fridge and sent it to my dorm without telling me. Imagine my surprise when I checked my mail and there was a slip requesting a signature for a mini fridge I never ordered. Since my parents have no experience with on-campus housing, it quickly became my responsibility to explain to them how it all works. Sometimes it is annoying having to explain to my parents how on-campus housing works and my mom has already admitted that she is living vicariously through me. However, it is generally a humbling experience. When I tell my parents about my college experience, it makes me appreciate the opportunities I have. My friends call me crazy, but it traces back to me having pride in the space I claim and taking advantage of the opportunities my parents did not have.
"Raise your hand if you're a first-generation student," seems like a clear-cut demand leading to a yes or no. Yet, it has always been a paradox in my mind. I have always felt like I was teetering between the struggles of first-generation students and the privileges of second or third generation students. Now I realize there is no clear-cut answer to this once debilitating question. Life is not always as dichotomous as society makes it out to be and that's OK. My experiences as a little girl watching my parents attend college as non-traditional students positively impact the way I navigate college as a first generation(ish) student and I would not change it for the world.
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