Why It Is So Hard to Be a First Generation College Student?

I am a brown, low income, first generation college student trying to navigate institutions that were not created for people like me and it freaking sucks!  First-gen students are often told “Work hard to be successful,” but I’m here to say that is bull.  My immigrant parents are the hardest workers I know and by no means are they “successful.” What they should be telling you is, “You will have to work WAY harder than everyone else, because of systematic and institutional racism.”

When being told you have to work hard, juggling 60 plus weekly hours of work, internships, volunteerism, child care — all while completely disregarding our mental health — is glorified and romanticized. We internalize the notion that unless you’re literally working yourself into the ground, you are not working hard. This should not be normalized. It is not normal to feel this tired every day.

Being first generation sucks because you do not know any of the answers. Being first generation sucks because you are forced to figure out the system on your own. Being first generation sucks because mami and papi can’t help you because they don’t know either. Being first generation sucks because you cannot fail, and if you do, what did your parents sacrifice everything for?

Cesar Espinoza, a Mexican immigrant who recently graduated CSULA Magna Cum Laude with a B.S in Criminal Justice explains, “Being first generation sucks because nobody gives you advice on what is next.”

“One assumes the obvious thing to do is to apply to jobs right after graduation, however, people don’t tell you that it is so hard to get a job with a bachelor degree now,” says Espinoza, 22,  “In high school, nobody really helps you or encourages you to go to college and if they do – they only push students who are the top of their class and that’s why so many students don’t attend right away.  Even then, high schools that do push students to pursue higher education, only show them how to get there, but do not mentor them on how to stay. The students that do decide to go to college, like myself, are constantly using trial and error to see what works in this environment and what doesn’t.”

LAVC student Ernest Rea Rodriguez, emphasizes that point, “There is so much pressure to succeed. My parents came here to make my life easier and if I mess up, I feel like they risked everything for nothing.”

Herlinda Cordova, who recently graduated from Mount Saint Mary’s University with a B.A in Sociology, explains that “Being first generation sucks because postgrad some of us are still lost in what avenues to take to keep molding our paths to proper career choices. It sucks because although there are resources available, they’re not always properly equipped with people who genuinely care to help.”

Lily Gonzalez, a grad student at CSUN, expressed that “Being first generation sucks because you have to figure out everything on your own and if you mess up then you better get yourself back up… on your own.”

Similarly, Jasmine Gomez, a CSUN student majoring in Psychology, stresses that “When you start, your family doesn’t know how to support you and your pursuit for education. You get stressed and you feel the financial push.” Gomez explains that first generation immigrants parents “Sometimes see higher education as a luxury and not a necessity. I ultimately chose to go to school because I wanted to prove to my parents that their sacrifices weren’t for nothing!”  

Cynthia Rodriguez, a CSUN student majoring in Criminal Justice, also reiterates that “the pressure of becoming somebody kicks in. I always carry the fear that if I don’t achieve or succeed, I’ll be looked at as a failure because I am the first one to make it this far in a university.”

Matthew Lucas, Mission College Student, emphasizes “doing literally everything on your own, and dealing with parents, because they never had exposure of college.”

Amber Lopez, CSUN student majoring in Psychology, points out that “Being a first generation student sucks because you’re faced with entering a world you know nothing about, all by yourself. To your parents you’re like a hero because you made it that much farther than they ever did. The overwhelming support you receive, as a first gen is amazing, but it eats you alive when you’re struggling to accept that your mental health is diminishing. It’s scary to open up about the fact that you’re struggling because how can you give up when you’re on such a high pedestal? College has been a struggle for me, especially figuring it all out from financial aid all the way to my career path, but I’m thankful that I’ve made it to my senior year!”

While it might be true that some people around you want you to succeed, most people don’t fully understand why first generation students differ from the rest of their peers. But all of these students who so graciously expressed their experiences can attest to that very tangible reality.


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Rocio Rivera-Murillo

Rocio Rivera-Murillo

Rocio Rivera-Murillo is a Chicana born and raised in the San Fernando Valley. She is the daughter of two hardworking, immigrant parents who left everything in Mexico in hopes of achieving the "American Dream". One of her main goals in life is to be able to repay her parents for everything that they have done for her. Rocio is a proud product of LAUSD schools. She was fortunate enough to find her passion for advocacy in Arleta High School through her former club Dreamers United. Her fondest memory as President of Dreamers United was rallying in support of the implementation of Ethnic Studies as an A-G requirement in LAUSD on November 18, 2014. Because of the struggles she saw her parents endure, her drive to help others was ignited early on in her life. Rocio, a first-generation, low income, college student, is passionate about her community, advocating on behalf of the voiceless, education and mentoring other students. She is a full-time student, double majoring in Sociology and Chicana/o Studies at California State University Northridge.

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