First and fore most I would like to congratulate the graduating class of 2014. Whatever path you decide to embark on, whether it changes as many times as you switched majors and will cost you as much as you are surely in debt; good luck and I hope you each are closer to finding your purpose.
Today seemed especially significant. I woke up with a rather rare burst of energy that soon caused my mood to crash. I found myself as I have been since witnessing URI’s commencement, turning over decisions that will soon be approaching. This time next year, I myself will be seated where many scholars once sat. First-generation students have a particularly unique experience. As being the first in our immediate families to obtain a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college or university, we find ourselves having to constantly validate our college student titles. We feel a sense of obligation to do as best as possible as a duty to our families. Specif
ically, I am speaking to the students of color or students who have immigrant parents. It is safe to say that we have been asked ridiculous questions about our ethnicities and offensive assumptions have been made of our life experiences. We are expected to speak for all minorities in a classroom where we are clearly underrepresented. But we also find ourselves having to validate our absence to our friends back home. I cannot count the number of birthday parties, baby showers and casual gatherings I had to miss because of overdue papers and projects. I guess procrastination is to blame but so was a lack of interest.
We often feel remorseful or guilty of shade we did not throw. If you come from a neighborhood like mine (Southside Providence) or family (Dominican immigrants) loyalty means absolutely everything. With every new thing I learned about myself and life, every city and country I traveled, and passions loved and lost, I was moving at a different pace and direction from those same loyal friends and family members. From the moment I graduated high school and prepared myself for college, I was setting myself apart. I now know not to expect said friends and family to fully understand or even care as much as I do for all the new beginnings in my life. Every few months I felt a slight change in myself, a sense of discovery as I grew closer to my true self. At the same time, I felt the distance between the person I was, the person I was becoming and who I was with my friends and family. I began to feel an utter sense of loss, I felt like I was leaving them behind and they felt the same. As students, we are trying to find what works for us and what does not. Balance and stability are important factors that takes most people all of their adult lives to figure out, however for underrepresented students it is a matter of juggling academics, social lives, 1-2 part time jobs, dating lives and the inevitable reminder that “we aren’t supposed to be here” attitude, a lot of students and faculty regard our presence with. I did not expect that I would have to prove I still belonged in my hometown and in my circle of friends. I was referred to as “Rosa Parks” and “Sojourner Truth” because I had a new found interest in discussing politics and issues of racism and sexism. There was such a pressure to dumb myself down, to hide my evolving being in order to “fit in”, and that is simply what it came down to. I simply no longer fit in because I was not the old me; the high school- no worries about anything but house parties- me, and it was a rude awakening. It was almost as if my friends were holding me to the same standard and expectations the world was. I was not supposed to be anything more than just another girl from the South Side of Providence. My surroundings set me up for failure like the Providence public school system. I asked myself “‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’” but I decided, “who was I not to be?”
There are a number of people whose light both blinded me and led me out of dark places and into the warmth of finding myself. We as people have to understand that our light will also blind and brighten someone else’s day. We all are at an age where no day is like the one before and so much can change in such a short amount of time. As we grow older, things honestly never get easier but as our confidence builds, fear no longer holds us back. We sort through our memories of people, the relationships we hold dear and ones that burned out. We come to an understanding that nothing is truly permanent; not our friends, our lovers or emotions. Naturally we are selfish, we know something needs to come to an end yet we do not think we can bare the loss. There comes a time where we must make conscious decisions. Do we allow ourselves to be held back or do we move onto better things?
As I look back on all the changes my life has undergone since I began college, I make sure to hold myself accountable for things that I am able to control; I am sure to remind myself that this is all much bigger than I am. I want to make my mother proud beyond words, speechless as she watches her third child and the first, graduate college. I want to see the suffering in her eyes, all that she left behind in order for me to move forward. I want to shake my father’s calloused hands from years of working construction; building luxury homes for other families in order to provide me with what I needed. My parents were immigrants who left their country, childhood games in their barrios, and family members who refused to conform to the security the states claimed to provide. They found themselves tortured by the New England winter and treated inferiorly for their native tongue, whose efforts to pick up a new language left traces of an accent. In this world, we will owe people and people will owe us. I let go of all the guilt I was pressured to feel, of all the loyalty I supposedly broke. If I owe anyone anything it would be the ones who told me to follow my heart and my dreams will fall into place. This is not a privilege for me but I regard it as a deed, something I owe my parents, my siblings, grandparents and friends who are no longer here with me. This is payback; I left the womb holding an I.O.U. This diploma, this piece of paper that holds such significance on a multitude of levels for someone like me, is theirs before I can claim it. I will live my life repaying my parent’s for their sacrifices. No one can ever make me feel sorry for that. As first-generation students we have an obligation to fulfill certain dreams of our parents. Many of our parents were not afforded the opportunity to obtain a formal education, having to leave school in order to work to support their families. A lot of our parents left their countries to work hard labor jobs in the states, to send money back home. Being a first-generation student is nothing to ever be ashamed of nor should you feel as if you come from a disadvantaged background. The kind of insight, instincts, and skills that your background has granted you, are ones that a college degree can never credit you for. You are no less because of your parent’s lack of education nor are you a direct product of your environment’s inadequacies. Nobody should make you feel guilty for taking control and full responsibility of your life.
This is an ode to the first generation. May you find peace with the bits of you that you have outgrown and the relationships you have lost temporarily. We did not get here by sheer luck or chance; no amount of money or scholarship was going to be the determinant of our futures. We got here by fate and the strength that runs through the term “first-generation” and all that it entails. Our fate was to be here and we are deserving of that just as much as anyone else. I am not a firm believer in destiny however; I do believe I was destined to move forward. That may mean different possibilities to different people. My parents were destined to move forward and they did so. They moved forward in terms of creating a life that was not afforded to them as children, bearing all the stress and good-byes that came with their destiny, they were built for extremities. I hear the term “first-generation” college student and I see a community. At some point we realize that this is beyond our own personal autonomy. If you have yet to come to terms with the concept that “you aren’t just doing this for you”, I suggest you get familiar with it. You are now a model of success, a resource to someone else. I look at my younger cousins whose only worries seem to be their Instagram captions or their next trip to the mall after school; I understand that as much as this is mine, it is also theirs. I do it for the kids in my neighborhood, the ones I used to babysit and skip class with their older siblings. The idea is to open up doors for yourself and hold it open for the person behind you. Our influence is just as strong as the forces that inspired us to strive for better. Regardless of the pessimistic comments suggesting your degree holds no value in this economy or the incessant questions of “What can you even do with your major?” your accomplishments are indeed valid. Obtaining a degree, gaining factual knowledge, developing new passions, opening your mind to new horizons and expanding your network is an accomplishment, an expensive one, but something you should be proud of. It is about what you do with it.
To the first generation: keep your eyes on the prize, count your blessings, continue to build yourself up; it is time to claim your shoes, already.
Just another girl from the South Side