The culmination of my four years at university left me with one piece of paper, and I felt robbed.
In May 2019, I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in biology with minors in chemistry and sustainability. I walked away from the stage thinking I had missed out. I was having a conversation with a friend when it hit me: was I the only one at this university who felt like I hadn’t learned anything? It was a frightening thought; I might have wasted the last four years of my life working toward a degree that wouldn’t necessarily help me secure a job or get into graduate school. It was not until then that I could clearly look back on my coursework, my work experiences, my mental health, and the campus resources I did (and did not) utilize during those four years.
First-generation. I did not realize what this term meant until a little over halfway through my college career, or that it referred to students like me, whose parents did not have bachelor’s degrees. It was even later that I found out about the available resources on campus that would have helped me make connections with students, mentors and employers. Unfortunately, it was too late for me to benefit from these programs, but it did open my eyes to my lack of knowledge surrounding campus resources. I wondered if other students had missed out as well.
First-generation. I did not realize what this term meant until a little over halfway through my college career.
Perhaps because I was the first in my family to go to college, I had no one challenging me to be more than just good grades. While I was focused on earning enough credits to graduate, I lost sight of my goals outside of and beyond the degree. I thought a degree was all I needed; I did not know the importance of furthering myself in the community and building a network.
Working 30 or more hours a week also made balancing coursework and extracurriculars a challenge. The idea of being in debt at such a young age had scared me into believing I needed to spend every moment outside of class earning a paycheck. In my last semester, I realized that by not staying after class or going to office hours, I had missed opportunities to ask for my professors’ perspectives on their experiences in academia. Garnering their advice would have been especially helpful to me, as a first-generation college student.
The idea of being in debt at such a young age had scared me into believing I needed to spend every moment outside of class earning a paycheck.
Likewise, upon starting my first on-campus research job after my junior year, I realized how unprepared I was for the rigor and self-discipline required in research. My coursework had been based on memorization and test grades, with very little scientific writing or presentation skill development. This was starkly different from what was expected of me in the research lab. I became disenchanted with my educational experience, but, being more than halfway done with my degree, it only made sense to finish it.
Additionally, college was the first time in my life that I had to take stock of my mental and emotional health. Being 1,200 miles away from my family, I struggled with making new friends and feeling homesick. Because of these challenges, I sought guidance from the campus’ counseling center. Even though this was my first experience with counseling, I was able to better understand myself and my feelings (after much trial and error). From reconditioning my relationship with myself, I built the strong support system I have today.
College was the first time in my life that I had to take stock of my mental and emotional health.
In March of 2019, I hit rock bottom. I received my final decision letter for graduate school; I hadn’t gotten into any of the four schools to which I applied. I had no back-up plan. I was not applying to jobs, or even considering other options besides grad school.
But then, things started looking up. I talked with a professor who made me realize how competitive the programs were that I applied to (I had no idea). Another professor offered me a TA position in a master’s program, and I applied to another TA position in a Ph.D. program via Twitter. I ended up getting into both programs, and now I’m in my 12th week of grad school in a program that feels right. I had thought my degree and experience were not enough. Now, I can see that the decisions I made leading up to my graduation were for a reason.
I learned a lot in my four years, more about myself than I ever thought I would. Four years at university taught me one degree is an achievement, and everything else learned along the way is, too. In some ways, I failed. In other ways, I succeeded. I spent too much money on fast food. I made lifelong friendships. I grew up. There are many paths through college and on to graduate school. It’s important to remember that there is no benchmark for success; you set your own bar.
Four years at university taught me one degree is an achievement, and everything else learned along the way is, too.
My advice to other first-gen students: Network early and often. Challenge yourself, inside and outside of the classroom. Go to office hours. Check up on your friends and yourself, mentally and physically. Build a support system. Ask all of your questions, big and small. Take detailed notes on everything. Work, but find time to also focus on the now. And most importantly, don’t give up. You are resourceful and smart. You will achieve your wildest dreams.
Illustration by Rebecca Perez.