Another school year, another set of first-generation Latina students treading new waters solo, navigating enrollment and financial aid, higher ed’s bureaucracies, demanding classes and a school-work-life balance that makes us feel like hijas malas to our padres we fail to call as much as we'd like. Add the inescapable racism, classism and sexism we experience from classrooms to conferences to the mix, and we begin re-evaluating our life choices: "Should I really be here?" "Not everyone’s made for school." "Maybe I really am nothing more than the ghetto Puerto Rican girl."
¡Deja de pensar así!
As my papi told me when I was struggling through my master’s degree: Nena, you belong there, and you deserve your seat as much – if not more – than any privileged classmate. It may be tough, and you can cry if you need to, but you will finish, because you're capable and because you deserve to.
If you’re not convinced by my papi’s words, read what these first-generation mujeres currently working on their bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees have to say.
Elizabeth Aguilar, 18, Mexican, Bachelor's in English and International & Global Studies at the University of Central Florida
I’m only three weeks into my bachelor’s degree at the University of Central Florida, and it's been a hectic and anxious journey already. Because I had no one in my home to turn to for help, I had to handle applications, housing, enrollment and financial aid alone. I did not want my parents to concern themselves with funding my education, considering we struggle on a daily basis, so I bore the responsibility on my own. Through grants and scholarships, I've been fortunate to not have to pay a dime this academic year. However, one scholarship is one-time, another one is for two years and another only extends for three years. Getting to college was one hurdle, but not allowing finances to keep me from graduating is another.
Still, the biggest struggle I face as a first-time bachelor’s student is the expectations. I have to excel at everything because I'm setting the bar. I have to make use of every resource available simply because I don't have the privilege of having my parents tell me what I need. And I'm doing this while managing five-plus classes, a job, extracurricular activities, events and workshops, studying, relaxing and other commitments. There's no wiggle room for messing up because as a low-income, minority, first-generation student, I am already identified as someone who will likely not graduate. I have to have a plan because I don't have time, or money, to waste. Basically, I have to be independent and fully responsibly for myself. And it's terrifying because half the time, I don't even know what I'm doing, or what I need to do.
But while there are clearly many, many obstacles, I know the rewards will be worth it. We need to remember why we are here, and keep pushing through. Networking, studying, taking breaks and finding a way to motivate ourselves will help us walk down that stage and earn our degrees.
Tanya Erazo, 31, Mexican/Salvadoran, Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology
I'm the first in my family to work toward a Ph.D. I don't have much guidance, but I will say that I have a lot of support. Although my parents have no clue what I'm really talking about when I explain my daily and long-term tasks or complain about the bureaucracy of academia, they listen y me apoyan. Other struggles I've faced are related to race and ethnicity. There are very few doctoral students of color in my field. Sometimes I hear problematic things in the classroom, by both professors and students. I'm not immune from saying something ignorant, either. But having more diversity in the classroom – and people willing to call us out when we misstep – would help us all be more informed. Another struggle is that I often feel like I'm seen as the "Latina caucus," speaking for all Latinos when I express an opinion. Moreover, I often feel like I need to say things in a really "level" manner when I speak, to reject the "fiery Latina" stereotype. But it's hard to stay "level" when you hear these microaggressions or other myopic statements in the classroom and during professional seminars.
Because of this, it’s important that we find students like us. My friends of first-generation and/or doctoral students of color are a collaborative community. We share reading materials, scholarship opportunities and more with one another. Finding them, creating mentorship relationships with professionals who are of color or LGBTQ-identifying and staying close with my family is the support I need to get through everything else.
Stephanie Watkins-Cruz, 21, Colombian, Master of Public Administration at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Growing up, I don’t remember seeing many women of color in roles I wanted to be in, so I need to be that face for other kids. I never thought I could actually get here, a master's student, and now I have. Four years ago, when my family lost our home for the second time, I didn’t think I would be able to finish my bachelor's degree, but I did. It’s a constant cycle of doubt, perseverance and goal-setting. I doubt because of money – because of things life throws at me – I persevere because I have no other choice, and I set new goals when I make it to through the old ones.
It’s also important for us to not stay in the box that society, including academia, places us in. I’m colombiana, but I’m also black and Native American. There are a slew of stereotypes that come with this, and will continue in higher education, but we need to resist them. We are not in our programs to fill diversity quotas; we are here because we belong here; we made it here, and we will make it in our next endeavors, too.
Beandys De Los Santos, 21, Dominican, Bachelor's in Communications from the State University of New York at New Paltz
In 2006, my mother, my sister and I got our papers. However, my father didn’t get his papers until now in 2015. My parents sacrificed living apart just to offer my sister and me a better education, a better future. Being a first-generation bachelor’s student, I feel like it is my responsibility to make those sacrifices worth it and become successful. So far, everything feels like an experiment. I’ve been doing this on my own, so, naturally, I’ve made a lot of mistakes on the way. But, even more importantly, I’ve learned a lot, and I want to make sure I pass all that knowledge down to my sister, who is currently a junior in high school. Although I might be the first in my family to attend college, I know I’m not alone in this. That’s why we need to uplift, empower and motivate other first-generation Latinas to strive for success.
There is nothing more powerful than an educated woman. It is important that as women, especially Latina women, we strive to educate ourselves as much as possible and break all the degrading stereotypes out there by finishing our careers and becoming successful. All the opportunities are out there; we just have to find them. The primary tool is education. It’s our most powerful weapon.
Cynthia Nayeli Carvajal, 24, Mexican, Ph.D. in Educational Leadership Studies at the University of Arizona
As a first-generation Ph.D. student, and someone who was formerly undocumented, I always feel the pressure to support my family economically. This responsibility has never been placed on me verbally, but as the only person in my family with bachelor’s, master’s and soon-to-be doctorate degrees, I know there will come a time when I will have to support my family financially, and that pressure is constant.
But that’s not the only pressure. The Latina/o Educational Pipeline shows that out of 100 elementary school Latino students, 64 will graduate high school. Of them, 11 will graduate with a bachelor’s degree, and 3.6 of those students will go on to receive a master’s or professional degree. From that 3.6, .4 will receive a Ph.D. I pursue my Ph.D. in order to change that .4 average.
This Ph.D. will prove to me, and to everyone, that our communities are present in spaces that weren’t designed to support us. It will also provide me with the tools and opportunities to support other Latinas as they pursue higher education. We just need to be willing to reach out.