Reshaping the First-Generation Student Experience

Being the first in your family to go to college or to study abroad inevitably pushes you to consider how your decisions will affect your future successes and your family’s situation. I think that as first gen, we often forget to be selfish when it comes to chasing after our dreams. In my personal experience, I found that I was always trying to please my family’s desires rather than following my passions. Though being first gen and the eldest sibling has left me a great deal of responsibility to handle, it has also provided me with numerous advantages. I needed to become dependent on myself if I wanted to get things done. However, this has continuously motivated and driven me to achieve the goals I set for myself. Most importantly, it has taught me to adapt to unfamiliar environments and adjust more easily.

I guess being first gen had finally come in handy when I departed for my study abroad program. When I arrived in Prague, I felt like a fish out of water, but this was not something foreign to me. I had lived the same experience the day I moved into college my freshman year. In remembering that such an experience was not so scary after all, I found comfort in the uncertainty. 

I ended up choosing Prague for a number of reasons. I wanted to live in a city where I was able to reconnect with my family roots. My mother immigrated to the U.S. from Poland and my dad from Macedonia. Growing up, I was immersed in both cultures, learning the languages, attending Saturday supplementary school, and participating in the traditional folk lore dance group. Though I felt deeply connected to my heritage, I had always found that something had been missing. The missing link was that I had never visited where my parents had come from. I think as immigrants, it was hard for my parents to reconcile going back given what they had lived through. They had sacrificed everything they had to build a better life in the U.S. They left their countries during painful times. My mother escaped Communist-occupied Poland and my father left the crumbling Yugoslavia. So, I figured that if I wanted to experience Eastern Europe and the Balkans, I would have to take initiative and I decided that studying abroad in Prague would help me to do so. 

I spent the first seven weeks walking across the Vltava River, exploring the city, studying in quaint cafes, and interacting with locals. During my short-term abroad, I was even able to visit the city that my grandmother had moved to in search of work, which is located on the opposite side of Poland where my family is from. I remember being so grateful for this opportunity. It truly mind boggled me to think that I, a first-generation student and daughter of two immigrants, was able to experience this. I remember often self-reflecting on what I did to deserve this.

Therein lies the problem with first-generation students. We are taught to always remember how lucky we are to be given such opportunities and rarely to celebrate our achievements that have gotten us where we are today. It is ingrained in us to always keep reaching for more rather than to recognize how far we have come. If we do not look back at our achievements, how are we ever going to look forward and set goals for the future? I think this is where we, as first gen, need to reshape the first-generation student experience.

Though my study abroad was cut short due to COVID-19, the first seven weeks taught me a lot about myself. It has reminded me to take care of myself and to be selfish with my time. As first gen, I think it is so easy to get caught up in fulfilling the expectations others have of you. Remember to remind yourself that this is your life and you have every right to steer it the direction you want to. After all, your future success depends on your own decisions, not those of others. 

Try to find peace in the chaos. You have done it before by juggling the college admissions process and countless other responsibilities entrusted to you. Remember that you possess an important skill that many lack – that is being able to see the world through a different and unique perspective. Take a deep breath. You can do this. 

Appreciate and celebrate how far you have come in life. If you just received a college admissions letter, congratulations. If you have decided to bite the bullet and study abroad, amazing! I am here to cheer you on. Wherever you are in life, always remember to be kind to yourself and to celebrate the mountains you have moved to be where you are today.

A final piece of advice: Although you may not have had the opportunity to travel the globe before, like myself, it is never too late to change that. Step out of your comfort zone, research resources, and submit that application. I promise you that you will not regret it. You are the author of your own story.

Any opinions or views expressed in articles or other pieces appearing in UMD Voice are those of the author alone and are not necessarily those of the United Macedonian Diaspora and its young leaders’ program Generation M; the appearance of any such opinions or views in UMD Voice is not and should not be considered to be an endorsement by or approval of the same by UMD and Generation M.

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