As I sat with a binder of homework at the kitchen table, I watched as my mom rushed to get dinner ready after standing for nine hours. A few hours later, my dad appeared at the door with his usual wave, pointing at the door knob for us to open the door, with a smile that dismissed his labor. This has been a scene that has been replayed in my life without needing a button to do so. Yet, even with their weary souls, my parents still take a look at my sister and I when we offer to help and say, “No, siéntense. Tienen mucha tarea, no quiero molestarlos.”
First-generation students hear this sentence in different forms, but they all entice the same feeling to resurface. If you’re a first generation student with immigrant parents you have understood that while your parents weren’t able to achieve the American Dream, they work hard in order to pass that dream onto you. Now, it’s our job to validate their efforts and the risks they took to come to America. It is our job to eventually make more money than they make. This duty comes from our need to make it all worth it, to break the cycle of disadvantage, build some generational wealth, and if you’re a first-born child, set the example for your younger siblings. It’s the crawling of fingers clutching the back of their shoulder with a squeeze, where a jolt awakens the responsibility to carry out our family’s success. This is called first-generation guilt.
All my life I’ve been told by my parents that my job was to be a student whilst theirs was to provide for us. In some ways, because of this, we become an imbalance of ambition and guilt. We want to pick ourselves up and succeed, but some of that drive is questionable. Are we making choices for ourselves or for our whole family?
“Any and all the decisions I make affect the future of my family,” says Laura Gonzalez, a 12th grade student at San Rafael High School. “It’s honestly a struggle. Trying to live up to your parents’ expectations always is. As a student who is responsible for my own education, I have to know what to do in order to make my parents’ sacrifices worth it.”
When I spoke to Laura, she brought up a very important point: first generation students are the first people to go to college in their family, making the path to college new and confusing for most of us. Because of this, we are left to figure out how to get there, not knowing how to reach that goal, but knowing that failure isn’t an option.
“I have to do it, one way or another. I have to go to college,” says Nayed Garcia, also a 12th grader at San Rafael High School.
I understand that we all want to make our parents proud. Over the years, we’ve watched as our parents came home late at night, their tired sighs fueling our determination to do well. Some students argue that they do owe their parents that much. Without their parents’ push, they might not have felt so determined to succeed in school. Others don’t feel motivated by their parents but feel guilt looming over their head. The pressure to make our parents proud can consume us.
There have been many nights where I want to give up but then I remember that I’m a child of an immigrant. “If they crossed a desert, then I can do a page of homework,” I’d think. “How ridiculous of me to want to give up over something so small.”
“Although it’s influenced me to be disciplined and hardworking, it’s allowed me to easily neglect myself,” reflects Vanessa Torres, a student at San Francisco State University. “I feel like I can never take a break and slow down if I wanted to. I always feel like I have to do something more or else I’m useless.”
Torres admits to feeling guilty all the time for not putting more onto her plate despite feeling burnt out. Her mom’s validation is something she lives for.
According to a study conducted by UC Merced in 2017,” first-generation students reported a higher frequency of feeling stressed, depressed, or upset compared with non-first-generation students. First-generation students need institutional support that can address their issues.”
Armando Franco, a Huckleberry youth counselor, touches on first-generation guilt as an adult. “It’s definitely different as an adult. I feel pressured by my mom to buy a house not for myself but for our family,” he says. “As I’ve grown more financially independent, I’m expected to provide an income while also feeling selfish for becoming independent enough to move out.”
“It’s very twisted,” he states, “because in order to work through it I need the comfort of family and the ability to speak to them.”
The process of learning that you don’t need to live for your family but yourself can be tough. It can feel selfish. I want to remind myself and all first generation students that we don’t owe anyone anything. We were not born to fulfill any goal no matter who placed that burden on our shoulders. Being honest about our emotions and seeking out professional help when we need it is not a failure, but a win that belongs to us.
Admittedly, I don’t think I can ever get rid of this feeling. It will always linger, but, slowly, I can learn how to cope. I hope that many of us will learn to do that as well.
“I am slowly healing,” says Torres. “Healing isn’t linear, but that’s okay!”
I want to thank all the people in this article for being vulnerable and sharing their experiences.