Looking back at my experience as a first-generation college student, I admittedly had no clue what I was doing. I nodded my head and asked questions without making it obvious that I didn’t know what was going on.
But the journey to get from high school to college was a difficult one.
I did everything you were supposed to do in high school. I took AP courses, studied hard for the SATs and applied to multiple colleges. What I wasn’t prepared for was how I would be treated and tokenized as a Latino in a predominately white college.
I based my perception of what college would be like on pamphlets and college websites, not realizing in the moment that I was never the intended audience. Rather, these promotional items best described the experiences of my white peers.
Being one of the only students of color in predominately white spaces did more to relieve “white guilt” than make me, as an individual, feel included.
Getting more students of color and of low-income backgrounds into higher education is critical, but simply showing up without being empowered to thrive is not equity.
There were so many micro-moments, structures and mindsets that embraced lowering the expectations of my accomplishments.
On my first day on campus I went to the bookstore to buy my books (rookie freshman mistake—buy books cheaper online!), and as I was paying, the following conversation came about:
Cashier: Oh, are you an international student?
Cashier: Oh, then are you a Hawaii student?
Cashier: Oh, then you must be an Act Six (a scholarship program developing student leadership, given predominantly to first-generation students of color) student?
Me: No, I actually grew up about two hours away from here. I am from Washington.
In my conversation with the cashier, I left confused. I knew how hard I had worked to get to college, yet all of those memories of my childhood in which my family made sacrifices just so I could get a quality education no longer mattered.
In her mind, the only way I could have gotten to college was through some type of race-based entitlement and not on my merits.
Helping Others Break the Trend
I know that the cashier did not intend to offend me—she was just curious. But her intention did not change the impact this conversation had on me.
Throughout the experience of being first in my family to go through college, there were all these micro-moments that reminded me that I in fact did not belong.
It was on those long days that I would hear an inner voice of self-doubt saying, You can’t do this, you were dreaming too big.
I had so many reasons to believe that I as a Latino man could not receive a college degree. But instead, my human instinct to want to belong pushed me to seek out other individuals with similar experiences, so that I would no longer feel marginalized on campus. It wasn’t easy, but it helped.
The struggle was real. Looking back, I remind myself that being first in the family to go to college is not an accomplishment I achieved alone. Every moment of wisdom and encouragement that my parents provided made this our accomplishment.
But getting to college as a student of color from a low-income background is not enough. You have to help others break the trend too.
That’s why I joined Students for Education Reform (SFER), the movement to work for an education system that serves all students equitably and prepares students of all backgrounds for college.
One day, students like me won’t be tokenized. Until then, we all have to contribute to the change our country needs.