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20yr Reflection On My First Gen College Experience

Aug 19, 2022

(Photo with first-gen students this summer where I had the honor of serving as their profesora during their EOF Summer Enrichment Program at NJIT)

 

20yrs ago, I had just wrapped up the EOF Summer Program at Drew University, and was enjoying a few weeks of summer break before starting the college journey as the **first in my family here in the USA to do so.**  Divinely timed, as a sort of anniversary gift, this summer, I had 3 incredible opportunities to work with different EOF communities through my business  –

  1. served as the keynote speaker to kick off the CTI Conference at Montclair State University, where I had the honor of sharing the impact that my EOF counselors (shout out to Irene & Twannah!) & peers had on my journey and offer them ways to integrate as they serve.
  2. delivered a leadership workshop to EOF & TRiO Peer Mentors where I shared my experiences as an EOF counselor & mentor.
  3. taught as a professor of Humanities at NJIT for their EOP Summer Enrichment Program where I challenged them to think critically about relevant issues in America Today, shared my own college & career experiences, and brought in a few first-gen speakers.

 

WOW.  Naturally, in preparation for all of these opportunities I reflected on my own EOF experiences and there are 3 insights for other first-gen students & professional to consider along their journey:

1. Be careful with disempowering language - it plants the seed for imposter syndrome

This is a cautionary tale, especially for higher education professionals or corporate employers who recruit college students.  Let me explain by sharing that as a Cubanita who grew up in a predominantly working class, Hispanic community, college was the first time learning that I was a "minority."  It was also when I learned about social & racial inequalities. As a social sciences major, when reading that the word "minority" referred to "relatively powerless, self-conscious groups whose members were subject to discrimination," I couldn't help but automatically feel self-conscious, powerless and othered.  I didn't grow up thinking of myself as minor or powerless.  Like inception, the "this is how the majority sees me" seed got planted and I suspect it ignited the pesky "imposter syndrome" from that point forward.  So, if you want to empower your students and recruit diverse talent, steer away from any type of language that talks about our identity & experiences as less than.  And as first-gens, we owe it to ourselves and the next generation to reframe this narrative.  

2. The First Gen Community (and allies!) is our most valuable asset

 I would not have graduated from college without the support of my EOF counselors, peers and my college roommate (who was not first gen but understood I didn't have access to the same education, resources or support as she did growing up with parents who were educators in suburban PA).  Its easier to lean into this community while in college; we lose sight of this when we enter the workforce.  It is only recently that companies are starting to pay attention to the term "first gen" and how first gen professionals are like other affinity groups, who could benefit from additional training, development & resources. If you're a first gen professional, raise awareness and create community! Tap me in if you need help figuring out how. 

3. Because we're the first, we tend to lack "social capital" aka a strong professional network

Whether you like it or not, hard work alone won't grant you access to internships, jobs or other career opportunities.  Who you know will always matter which creates a challenge for first-gens whose social networks don't tend to include many college graduates or white collar professionals. As an example, no one in my family here or my community worked in the non-profit or corporate sector. I only knew teachers, lawyers, doctors and small business owners.  Luckily, I leaned into my EOF community and it was through an alumni that I got connected to my first job in non-profit.  It was through an EOF ally that I learned about a career path in human resources and decided to pursue a masters.  With the except of my first corporate job that I was hired into through a temp agency, every single career move was made possible through a connection.  And my story is not unique; as a Career Coach, I can assure you the data shows us social capital matters.  So to all first gens - go above & beyond to expand your network because it does impact your net worth! To all allies - broker an introduction to one of your powerful connections.

 

The last assignment I had my EOF students write this summer was a letter to their future self, a few years after graduating.  My hope is that when they read it, they are thriving in their careers because they leaned into their power, community and connections.  And that 20yrs from now, they too will feel their heart glow with gratitude.

 

**I make that distinction because the term "first-gen college student" is still very misunderstood.  As is the case with many immigrants or children of immigrants, we come from families that had access to higher education.  I'm from Cuba where college is free for everyone, thus on my mom’s side, my afro-Chinese Cuban grandfather was a doctor; my afro-Cuban grandma, a nurse.  However, the process for getting to and through college in America is an entirely different (and complex) experience that our families, even when educated in their home countries, can seldom guide us through, which is why "first in this country" is a distinct part of what defines a "first-gen college student" and professional.