managing first-gen expectations
We all are faced by pressures whether they are from our parents, society, or ourselves. For me it’s all of the above. As a first generation U.S. American my whole life has been about fulfilling the image of the perfect citizen that is not only expected but exceeded of me. “Get good grades and stay out of trouble so you can go to college,” was a constant reminder in my household. I knew what graduating from high school and getting accepted to a college meant for my parents and my community. High school was easy for me because I love learning. I got straight A’s and when I wasn’t doing school work I was tutoring kids in special education classes and was captain of the Varsity softball team. Lucky for me, my hard working and passionate ethic helped me get to college. I received the Posse scholarship and choose to attend a private liberal arts college in Michigan, miles away from my family and the city I call home.
Soon after arriving to Michigan, I would come to realize the challenges of college, changes in my productivity, and mental capacity. Although my parents had taught me how to clean, do laundry, and cook there were a lot of skills and knowledge that my parents weren’t able to teach me like how to be successful in college. My first year starting getting difficult when I realized I wasn’t the top student in my class. I couldn’t afford to buy all my books so I would ask people in my class to borrow their books but it meant I had to do 100+ pages of reading in a day to give it back to them the next day. Most times I wasn’t able to get any of the reading done which meant I was unprepared for class and made writing assignments even harder. I also realized I didn’t know how to study or take efficient notes. I’d pull daily all nighters trying to read every page and take notes on everything. While in class I’d be half asleep struggling to catch up with the professor’s lecture. My first quarter I’d leave every class confused and with no participation points. I was pretty content with the grades at first but when I’d hear my fellow White classmates(which was pretty much everyone in the class but me) brag about their A’s or extra credit points, I felt like a failure. I wrote notes to myself “you’re not doing enough” “study harder, work twice as hard” to get me going but I could never quite get to the A level as everyone else.
I felt guilty because my parents had sacrificed so much for me and I was taking my situation for granted. It felt like I wasn’t allowed to fail or make mistakes because this wasn’t just my dream, it was my parents dream too. If I didn’t get an A on an assignment it felt like I was disappointing my parents and wasting all their hard work. I was really insecure about asking for help because I didn’t want other students or my professors to pity me because of who I was. The trauma of rejection and invalidation from a predominantly white institution made it really hard to find the resources right for me. The workload plus my insecurities and lack of support triggered a lot of panic attacks. I’d be in the middle of a class and suddenly I’d feel a heavy weight on chest making it hard to breathe. My mind filled with thoughts of fear and I can’t focus. Slowly breathing in and out, tears would fall onto the scribbled pages of paper in front of me. As the attacks became a recurring event, I started sitting in the back of the class and avoided eye contact with the professor and my peers. The thought of potential group projects and pairing up in class gave me knots in my stomach. My heart would race at the thought of raising my hand and getting picked on. I no longer felt like the successful student I bragged to be. My love for learning was reduced to the inability of feeling safe or comfortable.
As the year went on, the panic attacks were followed by other things like insomnia. Often times I would lie wake at night for hours because I couldn’t shut my mind off. Every night I ran through a marathon of reasons why I should stay awake. I was haunted by the things I could’ve done and should’ve done for myself that day. I would go days without sleeping which made it hard to function and keep up with my life. And then there would be times where I would go days of just wanting to sleep. I would have no energy and no want to get up. The thought of having to go to class, interact with people, and be a productive human paralyzed me. I starting missing class and all my obligations which caused my grades to drop and risk losing my job, which only made my life more stressful. The more I worried about my relationships, grades, money, and my survival the harder it got to keep myself together. I distanced myself from the people that cared about me. I stopped calling home and hanging out with my friends, which only led me to feel more lonely and scared. As much as I wanted to call my family and hear their voice I knew that it would only make me want to go home even more. There were so many moments where I wanted to call my parents and tell them I can’t do this anymore. But I never did because I knew my mom would say “come home, we’ll figure it out” and as much as I wanted to hear that I didn’t want to give up on my dream. In just my first year of college I had hit some really low points. It got really bad in order for me to realize I needed help. I reached out and took advantage of the free mental health services provided at my college. Through these services I discovered that I have anxiety and depression, which was all news to me. After that I became obsessed with researching all the possible information I could find about anxiety and depression. I felt a sense of relief with this diagnosis. Although it meant there was something else I had to worry about I finally knew what was happening to me.
I always felt like I couldn’t talk about my feelings and experiences because I was privileged to even be in this situation. I was the token student from the hood who got a scholarship to college. I felt like I had no right to be complaining. Yes, to be in college is a privilege but that doesn’t exempt all the additional struggles that first generation students like me face. I found friends and a community of people whom I was able to engage in dialogues about mental health and the more I talked about my anxiety, the more I learned about it and how to better live with it. I learned about self care. Something that should come as common sense but we forget about when trying to live in such a demanding world. Mental health like healing is not a linear process. Now 4 years later, I graduated from college and I am still learning how to live with my anxiety and depression. Even with all the information and mental health services, some days are really bad and some days are better. If it weren’t for the people who supported me and pushed me to get help I don’t think I would’ve made it but it also took a lot of researching and seeking for validation. In my experience living with anxiety and depression, it feels like losing control over your mind and body but getting help is the first step in reminding yourself that you are in control.