As a first generation college student, as well as the first person in my family to be born in the United States, there was many things I had to figure out on my own.
CREDIT: The author (left) and her sister. Photo credit: Betsy Aimee
When it came to college it always felt like there was an assumption that all parents knew a lot about the process and were heavily involved; That they were signing me up for SAT classes, flying across the country with me to look at colleges and had a vast network of friends that were ready to offer me internships.
They supported me in many other ways and cultivated in me a desire to pursue higher education, but for the most part I was their window into the mainstream “American” world, so their ability to help was limited.
It was a blessing to be so self-reliant at a young age but at the same time I carried many things in isolation and there was an emotional toll that took on me. I’m not complaining, as I have lived a life of privilege and opportunity that many people, my parents included, could only have dreamed of.
Because of this it always felt like I couldn’t burden my parents with my “problems” when they worked so hard to provide me with housing and transportation, and the occasional luxury. It’s not that my parents didn’t care, they just didn’t know what they didn’t know. It would have been great to have an adult, or older sibling to offer me support at that stage of my life.
My sister was born when I was 16 years old. I realized that life had given me a special opportunity. As the oldest daughter to our father who emigrated from rural Mexico to the United States decades before, I felt like I was her official guide to first-gen life.
CREDIT: The author’s sister. Photo credit: Betsy Aimee
When I was in college, in between class, work, friends and boys, I would pick her up in my shiny, red Mustang. I didn’t always have tons of money, but I tried to expose her to as many things as I could. I would take her to the Festival of Books at UCLA and we’d walk around local universities. On trips we would drive through schools and talk about what her life would be like when she was a young woman.
When she was in elementary school I read an essay she had written. In it she said that I was her role model. It was a stark reminder to be better, and do better. After all, my sister was watching.
When I graduated from college with honors she was 8 years old. My dad pulled her and my brother out of school to attend my commencement ceremony. I remember her sitting on the bleachers in her pink dress looking up at me proudly. She told me later that was the moment she knew she wanted to go to college too!
As she got older, we talked about the fact that so very few Latinx people actually graduate from college, and that while not everyone needs college to be successful, education is an important way to advance our entire community. I told her that seeking to be the best people we could be was a way to honor the sacrifices of our father and her mother (my stepmother).
As she went through middle school and the early years of high school, we talked about classes she could take that would put her on the “college track.” I am sure sometimes it felt more like I was an annoying helicopter mom than a cool older sister. I also made sure to be honest about mistakes I made, and things I didn’t know then that I wish I had known.
Last year, I helped her write her essays for her college applications. In the midst of my own crazy life, which now includes a child of my own, I always tried to set aside time to be there for her when she needed me.
When she started getting her acceptances, I cried. We went to look at colleges together earlier this year.
CREDIT: The author and her sister at her sister’s high school graduation. Photo credit: Betsy Aimee
After some debate, she decided on Mount Saint Mary’s College near home in Los Angeles. Then she announced she would be living in the dorms. I reassured my father that this was a tremendous opportunity for her to immerse herself in the culture of the university and be focused on her studies. When she needed to appeal her financial aid award, of course, I wrote it.
We went shopping for her dorm supplies together and part of me was super excited she was going to have the experience I never had. That is the thing about being a first generation big sister, like a parent, you want things for your siblings that you couldn’t have for yourself.
I also told her something that I wish someone had told me at her age. I told her that she is more than the sum of her accomplishments; that the determination and ethics that had gotten her to college would carry her through life no matter what happened.
I told her this because I also know that there is a particular type of guilt that plagues first-generation kids like us. We feel like we will never fully repay our parents for our sacrifices and we can punish ourselves harshly for any mistakes we make.
Recently, my family and I, including my father, brother and stepmother, moved her into her dorm. It was a bittersweet moment because, in my mind, she’s still a little girl looking up at me with wonder. But looking at me now is a bright, level-headed, hard-working young woman moving towards her future with the hopes of all her ancestors resting on her shoulders.
CREDIT: Photo credit: Betsy Aimee
As we walked back to the car my dad told me, “You should have more children. I would be having a much harder time letting go of your sister if I didn’t have you and your brother too.” I said, “Dad, what are you talking about? This one counts as one of mine too.”
While my sister has learned from me, being her big sister opened up a doorway to love and understanding the importance of mentorship for first generation kids.
After all, It is up to us who have paved the way to make sure we are leaving the door open for everyone coming behind us.