The First Gen Student Experience

By Mia Reese Bravo

Brandon Bosch, an FSSA vocal major, is hard at work trying to find “the best version” of himself at a first-gen student.

From across the ocean, America, Land of the Free, beckons to those who are in search of new opportunities, attracted by the prospect of a new beginning in an entirely different country. To some, this may sound like a familiar story, one that they may have already heard from their own parents. In fact, it’s not unlikely that their parents were one of the millions who immigrated to the U.S. in the ’90s. It was a fresh start, opening up a realm of possibilities not only for themselves, but for their children as well.

The term “first generation” is defined as being the first in one’s family to be born or raised in America, and for many, being the first generation in their family is a unique and incomparable experience. It may have felt like a delicate balancing act, carefully teetering between living up to parental expectations and doing things in their own best interests instead. It’s a very fine line to cross, especially with the weight of guilt or selfishness that may manifest.

It’s not improbable that their parents had some difficulties or had to make certain sacrifices when immigrating to the U.S., or acclimating to the completely new culture and environment. For that reason, feelings of self-conflict arise within some first gen students. 

Maeve Goepeesingh, a senior art major attending Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (FSSA), perfectly articulates this feeling. While Maeve is an immigrant herself, she was raised in America, her family immigrating to the U.S. from Trinidad when she was only two years old.

“Your parents came here and risked a lot to give you a better life so you feel like you have to make it up to them in some way,” Maeve says.

For many first gen students, making it up to their parents comes in the form of high expectations for themselves. It’s the idea of feeling obligated to do well in school and get a well-paying job in order to make the sacrifices their parents made worth it, to ensure that all of the opportunities they opened for their children didn’t go to waste. But how does this idea affect the well-being of first gen students themselves?

Brandon Bosch spoke about the notable impacts being a first gen student has had on his mental health.

“Always trying to be the best version of yourself is kind of exhausting. It takes a toll on your mental health because you’re always in this drive to succeed,” he says.

Additionally, Brandon mentions the difficulty of maintaining one’s culture as a first gen student. He talks about how attending schools with a predominantly white student population does not offer up many chances for first gen students to immerse themselves in their culture. Maeve felt similarly saying that she feels out of touch with her culture in comparison to her cousins.

Honoko Saeki, a junior instrumental major attending FSSA, shared a portion of her experience as a first gen student. She spoke about feeling very aware of the fact that being first gen in America offered her a plethora of opportunities that her parents may not have had. However she says that this has also created a greater pressure to succeed. 

For Honoko, that wasn’t all there was to being a first gen student either. Both of her parents were born in Japan, and brought up the notion of having different mindsets than one’s parents as a result of being born and growing up in America.

“I think I’m more open-minded about things than them,” she says.  

There were other aspects that accompanied having parents who were born in another country. To Adamaris Sanchez, a senior art major, being a first gen student meant figuring things out on your own — it was learning for yourself while also learning for your parents. On top of it all, it was the lingering feeling of obligation that she needed to live up to the perfection that her parents expected from her, who are from Mexico.

This paved the way for mental health challenges as well. Adamaris describes feeling overwhelmed at times, and although her parents were supportive of her own goals and interests, she says that they didn’t really believe in mental health despite having anxiety herself. 

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that being first gen feels like you’re growing up in an entirely different world than your parents, one that they may not always try to understand. Instead, they continue to impose their own standards and expectations onto their children, even if they don’t necessarily reflect what their child wants. Dayvin Martinez, a junior vocal major, finds himself in a similar situation. 

“For the longest my mom wanted me to be a doctor because I would be the first to go to college,” Dayvin shares. Despite his mom’s wishes, he says that he wanted to study music instead, and he found himself struggling to find a middle ground.

“I don’t want to feel like I’m disappointing her,” Dayven said. 

That was the singular notion that ties together any first gen student’s experience. It was a culmination of being aware that your parents made sacrifices to give you a better life, even if you didn’t necessarily ask for it, and it was the weight of making sure that those sacrifices did not go to waste or materialize in the form of disappointment from one’s parents.

Being a first generation student is more than being just a student – it’s the feeling of having to be the best version of yourself to fend off the feeling of guilt of possibly wasting the opportunities that your parents came to America to give you.

The experience of being a first generation student can be scary, especially when it feels like your own parents can’t help you with certain things while expecting success from you at the same time.

Although it’s a difficult balancing act, it’s one that nobody needs to cross on their own, and more than anything, it shouldn’t come at the cost of one’s mental health and happiness.