When you think of the college experience, you might think of  parties, social groups, and becoming independent. It is supposed to be one of the best times of your life.

But for first-gen Latina college students, college frequently feels the opposite. I don’t want to over-generalize and say this happens to all first-gen Latina college students. I’m only speaking on experience and situations I have seen or heard of. 

So why and how does the first-gen Latina college student experience differ from the typical college experience? 

The honor we bring to our families

The Latino community is typically known for its grand celebrations when it comes to accomplishments. Most Latino families do this to honor their first-gen college students when graduating. But why is this accomplishment so special?

Why do Latino immigrant parents feel proud?

Most immigrant parents, not just Latinos, come to the U.S. in the hope of a better future full of opportunities for their children and future families. Our parents left their homes and families for us. Not only that, but most parents did not complete middle school or high school. This is what drives our parents to encourage us to continue our educational journey. 

With being pushed and encouraged to continue learning there also comes a list of expectations.

What is expected of first-gen college students?

As a female first-gen college student still living in a Latino household throughout school, either attending community college or commuting, there is much expected of you. Since much of the time is spent at home (if not employed) most Latino parents see this as just free time for you. 

My sister is a great example of what I am referring to. She is the oldest sister and spent much of her time at home while enrolled in community college. She had a few in-person classes as well as several online courses. 

At the time, my sister was only 19 years old. The same age I am while writing this article. I was 14 years old having to see my sister struggle to keep up with her housework and schoolwork. It was confusing for me to be her emotional support as a younger sister. These expectations weren’t only because she was a woman, but because she carried the burden of being the older sister. 

A sampling of expectations first-gens might face, in addition to school work

A couple of expectations consist of:

  1. Cleaning: My sister was expected to start her day off early to fit every chore into her schedule. She was expected to sweep, vacuum, wash restrooms, make beds, wash clothes, and organize daily. 
  2. Cooking: Apart from cleaning, she was also expected to cook for our family daily. I often witnessed my sister struggle to study and cook as she tried to multitask. Cooking was non-negotiable, if she did not manage to make food before my parents got home, it would be a slight issue. 
  3. Focus on School: Lastly, apart from cleaning and cooking, she was still expected to be able to fit school into her busy day. She had to find time outside of class and in between her chores to be capable of studying and completing assignments. 
  4. Economic Responsibility: Although we are extremely grateful my sister did not have to go through this expectation, I know of several first-gen Latina college student friends of mine who have overcome this. Their parents, like several others, do not believe a woman should be educating herself. This leads to most of my friends having to pick up several jobs and shifts in order to be able to pay for their education. 

What it’s like to feel the weight of expectations

Recently, on social media, I have seen several posts commenting on the first-gen Latina college student experience. There’s been bittersweet posts but also brutally honest posts. I stumbled upon a tweet that read, “being a first gen college student in a latino household is terrible I’d rather get hit by a bus.” This tweet was uploaded by a young Latina woman. 

There is times when we as first-gen college students, feel like we don’t belong, or deserve to be in the positions we have worked so hard to earn. In the process of writing this article, I also faced these feelings of overwhelm. 

I began my second semester of college while writing this article. I was under a great deal of stress, enrolled in five courses, living on campus, and working every chance I got. As I started my first week of the semester, I felt like an outsider. I managed to get through the fall, but for some reason, the spring felt different. I cried for days during my first week.

“…And I feel like I can’t do this. Maybe school isn’t for me.” These are the exact texts I sent out to my sister during my frustration. I wish I could share this frustration with my parents. But when it comes down to it, there is a piece of me that feels guilty for feeling this way. Guilt should not be a part of it, but feelings are valid and it is okay to feel. We just need to learn how to put ourselves and our mental health first. 

It is okay to prioritize yourself

“Please sleep, law students. I’m a first gen lawyer born to a Latino family that imposed a bootstrap mentality on me. I recognize it’s hard to accept the word “rest” and when all you know is “hard work.” Reject burnout culture. Get some sleep. You will be so much better for it.” This is a tweet that was uploaded by a male first-gen Latino college student graduate, and it applies to high school and college students, too.

This mentality is not just stamped on the males in Latino families but on the women too. We are used to seeing our parents work excessive hours because they simply cannot rest until something is done. The thing is, our immigrant parents were taught these ideas at a young age which then reflected onto us. The work ethic we see in our parents is now implemented in first-gen college students. 

But it is okay to rest, it is okay to take your time. Resting does not necessarily mean just sleeping but it can be several other activities. Activities that can give you a break from assignments and also make you feel good. It is not selfish of you, to want to prioritize yourself to feel better. 

Coping with emotions

A couple of different activities in which you can take part include:

  1. Meditating: This can include taking deep breaths while stretching, doing yoga, or simply lying down. Take this time to close your eyes and debrief on everything that is on your mind.
  2. Journaling: When it comes to journaling, you have the liberty to write about anything you like. I recommend taking this time to write about any frustrations you have, sometimes we just need to let our emotions out, if not verbally, then written. But it does not have to be all negative emotions. You can also use this time to write about your day and your accomplishments. Sort of like a diary! 
  3. Self-Care: This looks different for everyone. Self-care is as simple as opening up a face mask or as intense as working out! Regardless of what it is, this is the time in which you take the time to feel good about yourself and your body. You deserve to love yourself and take care of yourself. 
  4. New Hobbies: With busy schedules and due dates, I know it is difficult to find time to dedicate to other activities. But dedicating thirty minutes to an activity can be enough to destress yourself. A few hobbies include arts and crafts, reading, baking, and much more! 

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed but if you give yourself time to breathe, reflect, and enjoy the simple things in life, you tend to feel better. Taking part in these activities helps release the tension and stress you withgo everyday. Think of it as a cure to your frustrations!

All that being said…

All of the above activities are gentle suggestions of what you can do to feel less stress and frustration. But there are situations in which these activities are not enough to help. 

If you feel like you cannot keep going and you have no motivation to take part in these activities, remember, that is okay. Be easy on yourself. Take time to think about how far you have come and what you have achieved as a first-gen college student. And with that, give yourself props for what obstacles you managed to overcome.

At times we fail to realize that we are powerful women because of all other responsibilities on our minds. Being a first-gen Latina college student is an amazing accomplishment and we should be proud. But again it is also tagged along with great responsibilities we might not feel prepared for. 

If at any moment you feel confused, lost, and out of place, know you are not alone on this journey. It is completely okay to seek help. Many first-gen college students like us feel the same way but are too scared to speak up and ask for help. If you take the risk to speak up and make yourself heard, others might feel relieved and understood. Let us continue on our journeys, care for ourselves, and make our families proud all while paving the way for our future generations!