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Home for the Holidays

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Imagine what it is like to dread going home for the holiday break because all semester you struggled academically and questioned whether you belong at your institution. As a first-generation, low-income student in college, this is what I went through. You see, upon acceptance to Cornell University several years ago, I became a beacon of pride for my family and everyone wanted to know how I was doing in college—and quite frankly, I was embarrassed.

I was pre-med during my first semester of freshman year. I never really wanted to be a doctor, but I did enjoy chemistry and biology (in high school). I decided to take chemistry and calculus the same semester, had to drop one, and barely passed the other. In an effort not to fail chemistry, I did not put enough effort in my studies for my writing and psychology courses either. For the first time in my life, I did not have any A’s, was under-credit, and had to meet with advising staff about my grades.

I did not have the courage to tell my family and friends about my struggle. Although I didn’t lie to them, they were not made aware of what a difficult time I was having adjusting to the rigor of college. When asked about my experience, I emphasized how involved I got on campus, or that I passed all my courses—but they did not know I dropped a class and at that point I was already in the mindset of “C’s get degrees.”

They didn’t hear about all the microaggressions I had experienced. I didn’t even know that they were microaggressions—I just knew that something didn’t feel right with a lot of the interactions I was having with staff, faculty, and some of my peers.

There was that time during my first chemistry lab where one of my lab partners told the other partner to redo everything I did because I was part of that summer program for people who didn’t have high enough SAT scores. Or that other time when a resident on my floor entered the common kitchen area to ask me if I can clean the ketchup spill outside of her door. I couldn’t bring these situations up to family at home because, at the time, I was feeling like my lab partners were right—I was not ready for college.

Almost every interaction I had with my friends and family at home began with an exclamation of pride, on their end, that I was at Cornell. Embarrassed and wanting to avoid having them worry about me, I glorified my time in college. In some ways, I believe that helped me navigate my experience because I did not want the added pressure of my family’s concern to compound what I was already feeling as an underprepared student. However, I also began living two lives—my “at-home” life, where I did not speak much about the day-to-day experiences of college, but shared enough for everyone to think I was doing perfectly fine, and my “at-school” life, where I relied heavily on my closest friends and trusted mentors to help me adjust and feel like I belonged.

I subconsciously separated the two, creating a dichotomy between my academic-self and my family. By avoiding talking about my struggles, I moved past those experiences without allowing my family to become part of the solution. Now, as a graduate student in a doctoral program, I struggle to explain my research interests and why I am passionate about this to my family. Why? Because my research interests are tied to my experiences in college—which they are unknowingly unaware of

Although I am focusing almost exclusively on the struggles I had at Cornell, I recognize it is through these experiences that I developed an intellectual curiosity and passion for understanding and improving the experiences of students like me. Before I could find my way, I had to get lost. It was when I noticed that I was the only one preventing myself from getting the help I needed, that I began to change my perspective as it related to my experiences. The help and resources at Cornell were always there; I was just too stubborn to utilize them, because to me that meant I did not belong there.

Since the Fall of 2008, I have realized that hearing, reading, or sharing the experiences of those like me has helped me recognize my belonging and purpose in higher education. The responsibility of being first-generation has transformed from a burden tied to the pressure of having to succeed and prove my worth, into an honor to give voice and value to the experiences of those just like me.

Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. His column appears in Diverse every other week.