First in the Family

by Julianna Docking | 9/24/15 6:00pm

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First-generation student Yadira Torres '19 is figuring out how to transition to college.
Source: Jessica Fedin/The Dartmouth

In high school, many of our parents had a basic knowledge of our day-to-day experiences and struggles out of sheer convenience. For many of us it was effortless to come home, eat a snack in the kitchen and mindlessly tell our parents how the biology test went — because we had commiserated about it at 2 a.m. the night before — or talk about our performance in the track meet — because we had just walked into the house in uniform. Before we flew the nest and tried to create lives on our own, it made sense for parents to know about our lives because, simply put, they were there.

College, however, is different. Now we schedule phone calls in between our classes, “sorry can’t talk right now” text messages with explanations that we are at the library and FaceTime calls trying to describe our clubs that are “kinda hard to explain.” When we’re no longer living under the same roof as our parents, for many of us, the intricacies of our lives inevitably and sadly become a bit foreign to our loved ones.

Despite this disconnect, many of us have parents who can use their own college experiences as comforting references for what our day-to-day lives are like here in Hanover. For the about 10 percent of the student body every year, who have parents who went to Dartmouth, these comparisons are even easier.

The vast majority of the student body has parents who attended four-year institutions. Although these parents might not fully understand the College’s quirks — the D-Plan, the quarter system, DOC First-Year Trips, flair and Late Night Collis — they can connect to college in general as a phase of life that they themselves once experienced. They had their own late-night cram sessions, office hours, extra curricular activities and campus culture. They understand, in a very basic sense, what these four years of our lives will entail because they themselves have lived through their own version of it, no matter how long ago.

But what about those parents who have not?

The New York Times published an Aug. 22 column by Jennine Capó Crucet, an author and assistant professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, in which she described her adjustment to life at Cornell University as a first-generation college student coming from a family with no knowledge of higher education.

She wrote, “My grades were the first of many elements of my new life for which they had no context and which they wouldn’t understand. With each semester, what I was doing became, for them, as indecipherable as that paper topic — they didn’t even know what questions to ask.”

Crucet’s account of her adjustment raises the question — what impact does attending college, especially an Ivy League university, have on first-generation students’ relationships with their parents?

I sat down with several first-generation students and, predictably, found that there was no universal answer to this question.

Instead, I heard students’ remarkably distinct stories, with common threads woven throughout, detailing parents’ sacrifices, students’ motivation to achieve and the mutual desire in both parents and students to understand each other’s divergent experiences.

Amber Webb ’18, a first-generation college student from a small town in Oklahoma, said that she has often felt a dichotomy between home life and academics, and that the split became more apparent during the college application process. Her mother did not graduate from high school, and her dad went to a trade school to become an electrician.

“[They] didn’t really know anything about my ACT score — they didn’t know that it was notable,” she said. “They didn’t know the score I got was pretty high.”

Webbs’ parents have always placed great importance on practicality, and she said that coming to Dartmouth and attending a liberal arts environment where she is encouraged to branch out of her academic comfort zone has at times been hard to explain to her parents.

“It’s a hurdle for them to jump when I am telling them about which classes I’m taking because a lot of my classes aren’t ‘practical’ classes,” she said. “They’re like, ‘you’re taking a women and gender studies class, you can’t get a job with that!’”

Teresa Alvarado-Patlan ’19, another first-generation student, described similar experiences, saying that pragmatism is of the utmost importance to her parents. Like Webb, she said that her parents have assumptions about the usefulness and practicality of a liberal arts education, and at times it can be difficult to adhere to their standards.

“When I was younger, I would say I wanted to be a photographer, and my father said that he wanted me to be a neurosurgeon,” Alvarado-Patlan said. “[My father] said, ‘You’re not going to make money being a photographer.’”

Alvarado-Patlan’s father grew up with 10 siblings in Mexico in a low-income household and often tells her about the exhausting days waking up at five in the morning to walk six miles to school. Although Teresa’s father graduated from his high school class as valedictorian, he could not afford to go to college.

“There is a divide just by me being here, because at my age my mom was married and taking care of her siblings,” Alvarado-Patlan said. “My dad was already working,”

While Amber said that her conversations with her parents rarely center around Dartmouth-related topics, Alvarado-Patlan said that she does not want to keep her life at school and life at home separate.

“I am going to go home and say that Dartmouth is amazing because it really is,” she said. “Even if they don’t fully understand, [my parents] will want to hear about everything.”

Yadira Torres ’19, who is from Orange County, California, said that she is currently still figuring out how the transition to college will influence her relationship with her mother. She said that there are small things that her mom does not understand about life at college, such as her course schedule.

When Torres told her mom that she was taking the standard three courses this term, her mom asked, “’Why so little?’”

Torres, like other students I interviewed, said that even though her parents did not attend college, they are constantly striving to understand their child’s life at a post-secondary institution.

“[My mother] will want to hear about the things she can understand. She will ask, ‘How are classes going? Do you like the class? Do you like the atmosphere?,’” Torres said.

Cesar Rufino ’18, the oldest of four siblings and the first person in his family to go to college, agrees that his relationship with his parents is increasingly based upon their desire to understand his life as a college student since matriculating.

“The thing about first-generation parents is, yes they’re protective, but they’re extremely helpful,” he said. “They might not necessarily know what goes on on a daily basis in a young American student’s life, but they try their best to get through that barrier and ask, ‘How was your day? What did you do? How are your classes?’”

Rufino said that while he is able to get an education and look at long-term goals, his parents did not have the same experience.

“When [my parents] were kids, [they] had to look at the short term,” Rufino said. “They didn’t look so much at how to be successful, but how to stay above the poverty line,” Rufino said.

While Rufino said he feels incredibly lucky to be the first of his family to attend college, he echoed other students’ sentiments that being the first one in the family to attend college can feel odd and slightly isolating at times.

“Being the first in my family to go to college out of all my siblings, it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing ’cause I’m here, but I do feel like a guinea pig sometimes,” he said, laughing.

Although he is in some ways the outlier, or “guinea pig,” as he put it, in his family, Rufino said that since leaving for college he has gained a greater understanding of his parents and their life struggles. He said it was good for him leave home for college because when he returned home this summer and saw what his parents did, he felt a whole new appreciation and desire to help them.

“There are so many ways in which I can help out the family, but they know it’s pretty stressful at school and they try not to bother me,” he said. “I always tell them, ‘No! I don’t mind at all. I don’t mind hearing from you guys and ordering something on Amazon. I don’t mind reading a contract for you guys.’ I don’t mind doing any of that because of what they’ve done for me.”

Many of the students spoke of the immense and inevitable pressure they feel to succeed for the sake of their families and the sacrifices made to get them here, but Rufino said that throughout freshman year this pressure to succeed has slowly transformed into drive. His eyes light up when he speaks of how his mom and dad inspire him to do his best everyday at school.

“First-generation parents aim, I feel, harder than any other parent to make sure that their children do not live the same life that they did,” he said. “And that is really, really powerful. That is something to motivate me.”