Embracing, Supporting the First Generation Student Experience
Being a first-generation college student, said Briseida Elenes, is about trying to successfully juggle and balance two worlds at the same time.
“There’s the world we grew up in and you’re navigating this academic world that’s new to us and you're trying to make sense of it all, wondering if we belong,” said Elenes, a current doctoral student in the USD School of Leadership and Education Sciences’ Leadership Studies.
Elenes recalls a routine two-hour commute by public transportation each way, each day just to attend UC San Diego undergraduate courses. She also knew that even if she had a big test to study for, it didn’t excuse her from other expected responsibilities while living at home.
“She didn’t care if I had an exam the next day, those dishes needed to get done,” Elenes said, referring to her mother’s expectation. “I tried working, but it was hard to juggle with the academic rigor and still trying to have a life. But we figure things out, we’re resilient, we’re hard-working, diligent, we learn to become integral entrepreneurs because we’re navigating this world. We have to learn, to hustle. We’ve got to learn otherwise you get left behind.”
Some, admittedly, don’t make it. Obstacles can be daunting, a constant struggle and seemingly beyond one’s reach. First-generation students, though, don’t have parents or siblings who’ve attended college and don’t know all it entails. Everything is new and confusing.
“Most first-gen students don’t seek out things when actually we should. We could ask for help, but we don’t want to come off as a burden to other people,” said Ray Khan, a 2014 USD Environmental Studies graduate and soon-to-be law graduate at a nearby institution.
First Generation Event
That’s why USD has programs to specifically address first-generation students and occasional events that seek to build community among these students. It’s also helpful when former first-generation students who are now USD staff, faculty and administrators, including current USD President James Harris, want to provide the necessary support.
On Wednesday, March 15, as part of the university’s annual University of Diversity Week, a First Generation Alliance meet and greet took place in the Degheri Alumni Center Courtyard hosted by Student Support Services and Associated Students.
Alumnus Grows Through Experiences
Khan recalled his first day as a USD student. It consisted of flying alone cross-country from Long Island, N.Y. to San Diego to attend USD’s weeklong Summer Bridge orientation program. He knew literally no one upon arrival. From there, he met people, made some connections, but experienced his share of struggles that could have deterred him.
But it didn’t. When he struggled his first semester, grade and financial-wise, he made a conscious effort to “switch my perspective” and create a pathway to work through it.
Inspired by Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” Khan utilized the OST method — objective, strategy and tactics — to help.
His objective was to succeed by turning the reality of being a first-generation student into a myth. He wanted to erase bad thoughts and work on himself from the inside. His strategy employed three tactics: “Become anti-fragile, grow stronger each time you fall down; become an essentialist, which is all about focusing on what’s essential in your life; and third, to become an infinite player. Think about it as the more challenges you face, the more lessons you learn. When playing the infinite game, and through your struggles, you’ll mature a lot faster, be self-reliant and your struggles will make you much more experienced.”
Embracing It All, Being Fearless
Elenes agreed. She, too, struggled with questions that filled her mind. “Am I good enough? Should I be here? Am I smart enough,” she stated.
It’s also about how the approach to the label of being a first-generation student. “I’ve learned that being first-generation never goes away. It’s an identity and you continue to be the first in many spaces – the first in your family to be a professional, the first to have business cards, the first to have an office or attend a conference. I find myself constantly in those worlds, but I’ve learned to embrace that. I think it’s wonderful that USD is creating spaces like this where we’re able to explore our identities together and celebrate and validate those experiences.”
The rest of Wednesday’s program included frequently rotating groups for icebreaker questions to get to know others at the event. The inquiries ranged from getting to know where each other was from, how long they’ve been at USD to talking about who are your role models, what are your on-campus resources for support and to speak up about what the university can do to enhance its support for first-generation students.
A photo booth allowed attendees to smile, laugh and pose with signs signifying, “I am First-Gen,” or “I am an Ally.” Junior Sociology major Debby Romero delighted the audience with a cultural dance experience as a member of USD’s Folklorico and Mariachi Association (FAMA). Then SSS Academic Coordinator and USD alumna Ophelia Augustine and Upward Bound Director Shelley Barajas-Leyva performed a few songs with acoustic guitar accompaniment by Diana Velazquez, who is also an SSS academic coordinator and a USD alumna.
The event offered a warm reminder that campus community support for all first-generation students needs to grow and that being present is essential.
“It's so powerful,” Elenes said of the event and support. “For me, it’s important because when you’re having those moments of self-doubt, you start to think it isn't worth it. You're broke, your account is overdrawn, you’re low on sleep and you have three midterms in two days — but then we remember why we're doing it. You need to keep that purpose in mind and keep it close to your heart so you’ll continue to trek forward. We can do it. We are fearless, We are first generation!”
— Ryan T. Blystone
USD News Center