A Letter to First-Generation Students From a Professor That Cares

A letter to first-gen students BELatina Latinx
Photo: BELatina.

Dear First-Gen Students,

At this point in your lives, your heads are probably full of questions and doubts.

“Do I belong here? Do I deserve this? Should I be more modest? Why me?”

You do belong. You deserve it. You worked hard for your accomplishments, and you should celebrate yourself and your achievements. 

But it is not always that easy, especially if you are Latinx, come from a low-income background, might be an immigrant, and English quite possibly is not your first language. If you are the first one in your family attending college in the United States, you may find seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet the fact you have made it to college in itself is a testament to your worthiness.

Julia Alvarez calls the dichotomy of identifying with your heritage and your life in America as “living on the hyphen.” It is also the push and pull of all your intersecting identities. There is a specific moment in Alvarez’s novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents where she finds ownership of the English language and finally sounds like herself in English. She is inspired by Walt Whitman’s words in Leaves of Grass to “celebrate myself and sing myself.” This advice is often counterintuitive to what we are taught to do as Latinas. Be humble. Don’t be disrespectful. Don’t be arrogant. Respect your elders and professors, even if they are wrong. 

We need to rewrite our narrative. 

While being modest is not an undesirable quality, a certain amount of confidence is also appealing.

I ask myself these questions often, too. I am not exempt from the self-doubt that creeps in the mind of first-generation college students — and then professionals — while they navigate the sometimes brutal world of academia, the corporate world, the so-called “real world.”

So perhaps it would not hurt to hear some advice from someone who has been through it and survived it. I have not made it through without bruises and disappointment. But I wish I knew then what I am about to tell you now.

Be aware of available resources 

In high school, I stumbled into opportunities. I was fortunate to have teachers who recognized my potential and placed me in honors and advanced placement courses when I did not know such things existed. 

I took the SATs and had no idea what to expect. I remember those tests were brutal, and I usually tested below average. It took me many years to realize what has been confirmed: standardized tests are filled with implicit biases that disfavor people of color and second language learners. 

Fortunately, most universities are making these tests optional or not requiring them at all, as it has been proven they do not accurately assess a student’s ability to succeed in college. In my college application journey, I did not know about scholarships or financial aid. 

While I was accepted to the top two public universities in the state, I opted for continuing my education at the local community college. Back then, it seemed like a safe choice. Today, I see it as one of the best choices I made in my educational journey. I ended up working at this very institution for my entire tenure as a college professor. 

Community colleges are a good option for some, and they can serve as springboards to four-year institutions. Embrace your community college experience if a four-year university is not within reach immediately. But if you can, go away to college. Go out of state. To this day, not having that college experience is one of my top regrets in life and this is why I work so hard mentoring students so they could have the experience I never had.

In the end, despite all the resources available, your family, professors, and friends are the most important tools you will find in your path to academic success. 

Emily students BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of Prof. Emily Sendin/ Instagram @emsendin

Seek mentors and friends that lift you up

Develop relationships with professors and students who have your best interest in mind, and avoid toxic, envious, and fake friends who secretly want to see you fail. 

Learn how to tell the difference between well-meaning people in your life who offer tough love when needed, or those who wish to drag you down with them. As Laura Santos, current University of Pennsylvania transfer junior, puts it, “Make acquaintance with professors, collaborate with peers, but only listen to those whose intentions are pure.” 

As a student, I was lucky to have mentors that led me down the right path and supported me along the way. Sadly, there were also professors who created self-fulling prophecies about me. I had the opportunity to write my own story and prove them wrong, but motivation should not come from people who expect us to fail. 

Professors should expect us to succeed. Peers should lift us up. I am my students’ greatest cheerleader, and I treat each student with respect and expect greatness from them. 

Never let a ‘no’ deter you from your goal 

If I had allowed every and any “no” to define my first-gen college experience, I would have never gone on to graduate school, and I would not have a career as a college professor. 

After graduating Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in English with an Interdisciplinary Certificate in Women’s Studies, I performed poorly in my Graduate Record Examination (GRE). 

In response to my scores, my local university decided to take a chance on me. During my probation period, I was to take two graduate courses and pass them with A’s. After I successfully completed that hurdle, the chair of the department welcomed me into the graduate program. I still remember what he said in that meeting, “You should only take two courses next semester. You should not put so much on your plate.” I took four courses. I earned As in all of them. In fact, I graduated from my Master in Arts in English with a 4.0 with an added 18 credits in Reading Education in one year while I worked. I am grateful for that old-school, white professor who didn’t understand me and judged me from his ivory tower of privilege as he put the fire in my belly to prove him wrong. 

Say goodbye to impostor syndrome

One of my former students was recently accepted to an Ivy League with a full-tuition scholarship. She earned her acceptance based on merit, but most of her financial aid is need-based. After a few minutes in her new “bougie” dorm, she started experiencing “a full-blown attack of impostor syndrome.” “I feel out of place like I can stick out, and everyone can smell my fear,” she said. 

Impostor syndrome is the belief that we do not belong, that we are a fraud, and that we do not deserve to be recognized and rewarded despite our intellect and hard work. This is not an uncommon phenomenon. Anto Chavez, Miami Dade College Honors College and Wellesley College alumna advises to “Look up the impostor syndrome. It’s a thing! You are not alone. It’s okay to feel the way you feel, but remind yourself that you’re just as deserving and worthy as anybody there.”

Empower Others

One of my favorite authors and iconic woman, Toni Morrison, said that “If you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” As you become a successful first-generation scholar, it is important to lift up your peers, build community, and support others. While a dose of healthy competition can motivate you, never make the ends justify the means your motto. 

We can be good on our own, but together we can be great. When we look back at the end of our journey, we should be grateful for those towers of support that contributed to our accomplishments and become that same support system for others. 

Sandra Cisneros puts it best when she ends The House on Mango Street with her protagonist Esperanza leaving her community. However, like Esperanza, I “have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.” 

As first-generation students, I encourage you to own your success, practice deep gratitude, and lift as many people as you can along the way. Don’t leave anyone behind.

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