On Being First in Your Family
In support of #ProofPointDay Education Post staff share their reflections on being a first-generation college student.
When you’re a first-generation student, your hopes and dreams can scald your eyes.
There was pressure. So much pressure. My family expected me not only to go to college, but to be admitted to a prestigious one on a huge scholarship. My older brother dropped out of high school and was forced by our mother to return and graduate so college was a stretch for him, to put it generously. They poured all their immigrant hopes into me, to prove to themselves the move to the United States was worth all those years of uncertainty and hardship.
Being a first-generation college student means accepting you will do a lot of things without help, such as filling out financial aid forms or arranging campus visits, because your parents don’t know the first thing about applying to college.
You have no money at your disposal, so you learn to be resourceful and hunt for scholarship contests to enter or check out SAT practice books from the library. It means cutting school in the middle of the day to write the application essay burning a hole inside you.
This essay—raw, urgent, pained—will be how you convince an admissions officer that acceptance to their college will result in more than ascendance into a white collar life—it will irrevocably change who you are in ways you can only begin to appreciate years later.
Yet if the path into and through college was straightforward, I wouldn’t have developed the tenacity that has served me well in my adulthood. As stressful as it was worrying about where to find the money to pay for college or holding my own among moneyed peers who lived on Park Avenue, the self-reliance I built means even more to me than the degree I earned.
Hanna Grace Frank
When I was growing up, stability was something that came and went in the blink of an eye. We lived a day-to-day lifestyle, feeling blessed when one more day passed that we didn’t receive the expected foreclosure notice and when Mom was having a “good” week. My sister says we learned to function only in a state of crisis—“stable” is something I’ve recently adjusted to.
However, the one thing that was always expected in my house was that I, the youngest of five, would be the first in my family to go to college. We didn’t know how and it definitely wasn’t going to be the traditional four-year route, but it was certain that I would walk across a stage.
Many factors were at play as to why my family’s emotional and financial solidity was rare—single mother, mental illness and skyrocketing credit card debt, just to name a few.
But a major contributor was my parents’ inability to earn steady incomes without college degrees. Mom knocked on casino doors looking for cocktail waitressing jobs and my dad held down a stint at nearly every local car dealership.
As a first-generation student, a college degree meant stability. It meant financial freedom with a modest salary and a 401(k). It meant not having anxiety at every checkout after too many times of walking away from our cart of groceries because Mom’s card was declined.
A college degree means no longer living in a state of crisis.
Being the daughter of two immigrants who didn’t have college degrees, there was an expectation in my home that I was going to go to college, I was going to do very well there, and I was going to figure out how to pay for it. College was the path to success, and my parents made sure that was clear.
Even though my parents didn’t have any experience with colleges, getting scholarships, or have the social capital to pull strings at a major university, they worked tirelessly to both instill a strong work ethic in me and to learn everything they could about how to succeed after high school.
My junior year was filled with ACT preparation classes, essay drafts, and lots of, “They have dorms with boys and girls in them?!” Senior year was spent revising those essays and applications, searching for any and every scholarship available…and reminders that I was applying to the all-girl dorms.
For me, being a first-generation college graduate, and in fact, the first woman in my extended family to attend and graduate college, was a really big deal. I knew, being the eldest of my siblings and cousins, that I was setting an example for my family. Wanting to set a good example for them and to make my parents proud was a driver for me when I was younger, and still drives me today.
Graduation is only few weeks away, and I am getting excited. I will finally graduate with my degree in Liberal Studies with a Leadership Development major. It has been a long road that at times, was rather difficult. Yet, here I am. I have made through the American college. I survived all those late night study sessions and final exams.
The most significant thing that graduation means to me is that I learned a lot about myself. When I immigrated to the U.S., I went through an extreme identity change. I was separated from my old way of life, my family, my friends, and my city. I lost the country where I grew up, went to school and lived forty five years of my life. I lost a social status, personal identity, and ability to operate effectively in the environment. The transition was painful, but enrolling at UW Oshkosh helped me understand those pains and opened the door for my transition. Throughout my educational journey I discovered that I formed a new identity, new values and new attitudes. I was able to overcome painful obstacles of transition, find peace with myself and resettle comfortably in my new country.
As a nontraditional student in my late fifties, I did not have any expectations prior to my courses. I simply wanted to get over them and get my B.A. as quickly as possible. I did not anticipate that I would, to my surprise, like some classes, and that those classes will affect my personal and intellectual growth. My educational journey at UWO has shown me that I, indeed, have what it takes to pursue my dreams and achieve my goals.
But graduation also means no more online classes, discussions on D2L, papers, and reading boring books; no more late nights; no more balancing between assigned readings, family, and work. No more “wire walking.”
When I walk in the 139th Commencement of the University of Oshkosh on May I will hold my head high because I did something great.
I hope your dreams take you to the corners of your smiles, to the highest of your hopes, to the windows of your opportunities, and to the most special places your heart has ever known. ~Author Unknown
Gordana Oehmen is a Bachelor’s of Liberal Studies Leadership Development student from Oshkosh, Wis. Oehmen is originally from Belgrade, Serbia, and came to the United States in 1999. Oehmen also earned three credits for her prior learning in project planning, and six credits in foreign language.