My family didn’t even own a car. So on move-in day, my dad had asked his friend to drive us with all my belongings to Rutgers University, where I completed my undergraduate degree. When we arrived, they helped me unload everything onto the sidewalk. And then they left.
Standing outside the all-women’s dorm with my typewriter (yes, a typewriter in 2002!), clothes, laundry basket and whatnot, I realized, this would be the beginning of my aloneness.
Race and class were the easy markers of how I was different than most of the people I knew that first year, but there are these other things you can’t see and name. There’s this degree of knowing that comes more easily for those who have access to resources, preparation and quality education. And, for those who don’t — there’s the not knowing. Plus, I always worked two or three jobs as a student and helped my parents financially at home; it was just a different set of responsibilities.
We are so used to the hustle of having to do so much — carry so much weight — that we are unfamiliar with the behaviors that come with privilege. It’s really easy to burn yourself out at every level because of that feeling of needing to constantly do more, prove yourself and excel. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.
I started to get out more, go to campus events and join organizations and met other first-generation college students and people of color. When I stepped out of my dorm and into the larger campus life, I found people who were doing things that mattered to me. I started to work as a medical interpreter, to volunteer at the local elementary school, to advocate to change the things I understood intimately — inequality and other systems of oppression that limit access for working class folks and people of color.
When I started doing this community work, I felt like, “Okay, people like me do belong here in college.”
My nephew is now at Dartmouth working on his Master’s. I hear my former self in him when he shares his observations of what it’s like to be a first-generation college student and how hard he is working, and I know there’s still more work to be done.