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First-Gen Latinas Talk College Experiences: Realities, Pressures, Successes

Pursuing higher education is no joke, a dream unattainable by some and grueling for those who decide to attend. Many emotions come with the college experience for Latinos born in this country to immigrant parents, from pride and joy when receiving that spring acceptance letter, to guilt and imposter syndrome when it’s time to walk that commencement stage and long after.

First-generation Latinos are truly built different, having to be a translator and advisor as a 5-year-old, navigating a foreign-speaking world with no prior knowledge, reaching heights that surpassed your ancestors’ wildest dreams. However, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows after making it. Many of us are still torn between building our own independent lives or opting out of higher education or fulfilling careers to support our families.

No one has life figured out, but it’s comforting to know we’re all living the same life — the same struggles, the same breakthroughs of firsts, the same feelings of self-doubt. You are not alone, that’s why we asked four extraordinary Latinas about their college experience, and their responses reveal a universal abundance of determination, sacrifices and poniéndose las pilas.

Image courtesy of Maria Alonso

As a first-generation college graduate, obtaining my degree was one of my life’s big accomplishments. There were many odds against me such as a lack of knowledge about the college experience, lack of financial stability and family obligations. It was difficult to navigate college when there was no one in my family that I can talk to about their experience. My parents dropped out of school during their elementary years so for me to even finish high school was a huge deal. Although my friends often discussed their college experience, I knew it wasn’t the same because most of them came from privileged backgrounds and some opted out of college so I was out of luck and had to figure things out on my own — me puse las pilas.

While I lived at home, I helped with expenses and also watched my sisters when I wasn’t at school or work, therefore, making my social life nonexistent. There was a time when I had to work two jobs while attending college because I knew that if I wanted to pursue my education, it was going to be expensive. It wasn’t even until my third year in college that my family could finally afford Wi-Fi! It’s one of those things that people think families can just afford but it’s not so easy — the pandemic unveiled that. I remember like it was yesterday, I had to get up at 5 a.m. to take the bus for my 11 a.m. class and get there early not only because of the long ride but to be able to use the computer lab before class started. It was my senior year when I finally bought myself my own laptop!

Although I am no longer in college and I am now a working professional, a lot of the pressure as a first-gen graduate is still there, primarily guilt. I feel guilty for working from home while my parents are out doing manual labor. However, I do check in with them and try to spend more time together sometimes doing simple tasks to help them or taking them out to experience places they weren’t able to experience when they were younger. From a professional perspective, it has helped me be a better communicator and an empathic professional (which I think is very important). I hope my parents are proud of me because I know I am proud of them. 

— Maria Alonso, B.A.

Image courtesy of Audrey Diaz

My parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic in their late teens. They got married at 21 with only $1,000 between them but were offered the opportunity to buy into a supermarket with my dad’s brothers. My mom’s entire paycheck went into my child care and most of my dad’s into paying back the loan. They worked over 12-hour days almost seven days a week for years, but it paid off in big ways.

I was accepted into Parsons School of Design and offered scholarships and loans, but when my father went with me to the bursar’s office, he took out his checkbook and said, “Deny your student loans. This is my inheritance to you so that you could take this further than I ever could.” This legacy empowers me to give back and live my life to the best of my potential.

I would say to make sure we are self aware and grounded in what we want because if we strive to just do it to make our parents proud, it can leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled later on. It’s not just carrying on the legacy but knowing it’s what we decide to do with it. 

— Audrey Diaz Robles, B.A., Parsons School of Design

Image courtesy of Anggye D. Godoy Garcia

I was born and raised in Nicaragua. I came to this country when I was 17 years old. At the time, I did not know English and had already graduated high school. The first thing I did was register at Miami-Dade College to learn the language. Two years later, I finished my English course and began my associate’s degree in business administration at the same college. After about three years, I graduated with honors. The next natural step was to go to Florida International University to pursue my bachelor’s in human resources management and finance. I am grateful that after many years of hard work and perseverance, I was able to graduate and give my mother what she always wanted: for the first daughter to graduate from university.

I was raised by a single mother and I have two younger sisters. For my mother, every sacrifice she made for us was worth it. It was always a dream to graduate from a university because I want my two sisters to have someone they can look up to.

Honestly, I didn’t enjoy the difficulties that came with being a student because I worked full-time while attending college. It was extremely taxing. Now, I can say that the two or three hours of sleep I had during those tough times were well worth it because I am currently working an 8-5 job in human resources, partly working from home and weekends off!

I don’t think I felt extra pressure from my mom or others except from myself. I want to succeed in life and for me the best way to do it is by continuing to learn. Currently, I am pursuing another bachelor’s in accounting. My ultimate goal is to become a CPA.

— Anggye D. Godoy Garcia, B.S. Human Resources Management and Finance, Florida International University

Image courtesy of Valerie Romero Rosas

I am a first-born, first-generation Latina. Mi familia es de Guadalajara, Jalisco — they emigrated from Mexico to the Chicagoland area in 1994. 

In 2017, I graduated from a “prestigious” university in Illinois (which my high school counselor didn’t think I would get into, thank God I didn’t listen and applied anyway).

I used to think that many of the obstacles I overcame as I navigated the process of going to college made me “less than,” that it was a huge disadvantage and weakness. Now I see them as strengths of which I am so proud, but also acknowledge that even though it made me stronger, it also felt like it was the only option for me; purely out of survival. 

For me, there was no other option but to go to college. Earning a bachelor was not just a goal for myself, but for my family — it was a testament that they made the right choice and that their sacrifice of leaving Mexico was worth it. 

During my senior year in high school, I was dually enrolled at my local community college and my goals were to 1. figure out what major I wanted and 2. finish as many possible credits as possible so I could save money. I am so thankful for that experience because it truly prepared me for college and I was able to complete my undergrad in three years instead of four! It saved me shy of $40,000! (Although I still have student debt.) As the first born, I set an example for my younger brother — he followed in my footsteps and will now graduate a semester early — set to walk the stage on December 2022. 

Overall, my whole experience of getting my bachelor’s degree was foreign, I couldn’t rely on anyone but myself to figure out and navigate the process. FAFSA, student loans, getting a job during undergrad out of necessity, so many firsts. I took many risks and just trusted that I had everything in myself to figure it out as I went along. If my parents took risks and made it work, then so could I.

Now that I’m in the workforce, I feel like I’m in the same cycle — learning how to navigate having a 401K having just recently opened a Roth IRA & a health savings account. I wish I would’ve done it five years ago, but I have a healthy 401K at my age and am glad I started now to prepare for retirement, for my health and emergencies. It has been and continues to be a lot of pressure. My parents never invested in a 401K because of the lack of knowledge and resources for immigrants. As the first born I feel the “burden” of having to not only help myself, but my parents and also the generations that will come after me. I am currently trying to figure out generational wealth and what that looks like. 

Now, not only am I actively traversing the workforce, but I’m also trying to figure out corporate politics, standing up for myself, etc. Thankfully I have somewhat of a healthy job and my company is currently financially supporting me and my MBA, which I am set to finish in October 2022. 

Even now the pressure hasn’t stopped. Being the first in my family to navigate many firsts used to feel like a burden, but now I take my strides with pride on behalf of my culture y mi gente mexicana. I feel honored to represent mi cultura. 

— Valerie Romero Rosas, B.A.

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