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Oct. 28, 2020

Student view: Working hard

Kathrine Yacoo is a second-year osteopathic medical student in the College of Osteopathic Medicine. She earned her B.S. in biochemistry from the University of Detroit Mercy in 2019.

I'm not the typical American first-generation student. My parents are both immigrants from Iraq, which makes me a first-generation American. What’s unusual about my experience is that my parents had professional careers in Iraq. My dad was a pharmacist, and my mom was an accountant. However, the Iraqi education system was very different than here. My dad’s degree would be like an associate degree here, and my mom’s high school program put her on a specific track to earn certification in accounting.

The war and persecution they faced in Iraq brought them to America for a better life. They couldn't afford the hefty price tag that comes with college in the U.S., so after they settled into new jobs here and became naturalized citizens, they had me. 

Fast forward to today and I can proudly say I've earned the first bachelor's degree in my household.

I would say the hardest part of my journey initially was that the people I had spent my first 18 years of life trusting to have my best interest at heart and give me good advice, couldn't give me any. My sweet parents were unsure of what academia in America was like and certainly weren't qualified to give me advice on how to get into medical school. 

“I would say the hardest part of my journey initially was that the people I had spent my first 18 years of life trusting to have my best interest at heart and give me good advice, couldn't give me any. ”
Don't get me wrong — I wouldn't be where I am today without my parents’ support both emotionally and financially. What kept me going when things felt overwhelming was the belief my parents had in me. Although this belief was a blessing, it also felt like a double-edged sword. 

Sometimes you feel like you have the weight of your entire family on your shoulders. I wanted to make them proud, but I also wanted to make my college experience my own. Navigating your parents’ wishes and your own is something I feel isn’t discussed enough. There is definitely an added pressure that comes with being a first-gen.
“Sometimes you feel like you have the weight of your entire family on your shoulders. I wanted to make them proud, but I also wanted to make my college experience my own. ”

Another big challenge is simply getting your foot in the door. I remember in high school when my guidance counselor started explaining the process for applying to colleges. I was so confused. Things like FAFSA, ACT, the importance of GPA — it was so foreign to me. The internet, the registrar and financial aid offices became my best friends.

First-gen students are always told to "work hard" so that we can be successful, and ‘work hard' I certainly did and am still doing.

A big part of my journey is that I took advantage of every single resource that came my way. There are invaluable resources out there and, in many instances, you just need to apply, or you just need to ask. I also followed the scholarships when choosing a college. I got a full ride scholarship to the University of Detroit Mercy and was admitted to a program that involved a small stipend from the NIH for doing research. I wasn't sure how paying for medical school and the expensive application process would work, so I had a couple of jobs on campus and started saving money. 

Although my parents have never been the type to put pressure on me, I still feel pressure that I put on myself. Even today I feel like failure is not an option because it would mean not honoring my parents’ sacrifices. 

If you can relate to any part of this small glimpse into my life, the advice I have for you today is to be a friend to yourself in this process. Mistakes will happen and that's okay; it's a part of the journey. Learn from every single misstep and don't get discouraged.


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