A letter to first generation university graduates

Hey fellow first generation university graduate,

It’s finally here. Whether you’re like me and walked across the stage this week to pick up the most expensive piece of paper you’ll ever own, or you’re heading there soon, we know that this has been a long time coming. As first generation grads, we have faced unique circumstances that some of our university peers haven’t. I’m here to tell you that at the end of all of it, the struggles we may have faced will put us ahead in our future careers and life in general.

As a sociology graduate, I can tell you that statistically it is rare for us to have made it. Research suggests that first-generation students enrol and graduate at lower rates than do other students. That means even getting into university, let alone making it to the finish line is an enormous achievement. This doesn’t take into account personal circumstances such as additional barriers to being a first generation graduate like socio-economic status, familial issues or physical and mental drawbacks.

In my last year of university, most of my sociology major surrounded topics of juvenile delinquency and at-risk youth and made me realize how fortunate I was in my upbringing. Although I fell in line with the same issues that these youth did - such as having divorced parents, dealing with trauma and being the first in my family to attempt to pursue higher education - I had the one thing that suggests the success of youth. Someone who believes in them. I know there are two sides of the first generation student spectrum when it comes to support. We either have parents that heavily encourage us to build a better future for ourselves, or those who don’t see the benefit in attending university because they made it out just fine without education. I had both sides of the spectrum, and I know how fortunate I am to have had my mom be as encouraging and supportive of my journey. Remember that if you do not have the same support as I did, at the end of the day, the choices you make are for yourself. You want a better life or to pursue your dream career - forget what everyone else says and do it for you.

I know how difficult it can be when your family doesn’t understand what you’re up to. They might see university as a large financial burden, or see your degree itself as a waste of time (I understand, fellow arts graduates). But here’s the thing - you are paving the way of success not only for yourself, but for your future generations. It’s been shown that people who are higher educated in certain fields have a greater advantage in leveraging their education to be hired. There are many other benefits but I don’t need to list them all, you have your own reasons for taking this chance. You just need to know that you made it. After all the bullshit or the doubt you may have faced from others, you graduated and are setting the standard for your own children, or as a role model for younger siblings or for other people who may be a first generation student.

I remember being frustrated at times by not having the resources that I needed because I was a first generation university student. I couldn’t just call up my mom and ask her how I enrol for classes, or how to get myself an internship. Of course, she provided me with much more than I could have ever asked for - but we can see the differences through our peers. When my friends could just call up their parents and figure out how something gets done, or their parents getting them their internship and co-op positions, I had to be on the sidelines paving the way for myself. I’m sure you can understand this as well. The truth is we have to work extra hard in these areas and people may not understand it. This doesn’t even include additional barriers such as ethnicity, gender and mental health that can be large contributors to how the higher education system treats its students and the opportunities that are available for us.

When my friends would tell me to stop working so many jobs so that I could focus on my studies, they didn’t understand. When I’m told that I’ll get a job just by being patient, they didn’t understand. Being fortunate enough to attend university but facing challenges because of having to rely solely on yourself is a tough area to navigate. I personally am so grateful for this. I see my peers who had many things handed to them has made me thankful for developing the skills of being self-sufficient. Facing barriers allows us to grow as people and will eventually make us better off.

You may be in the same position as I am at this point. You’ve graduated, and yes, it’s a big accomplishment, especially given your family circumstances but you may feel like you’re not a “success” just yet. I know there are so many things that I need to do in order to make myself feel like I’m where I want to be. But I’m here to tell you congratulations. We are not just a statistic. We’re not just the crazy kids that may have chosen something that our parents didn’t want. We’re more than the trauma we may have faced, or the difficulties we had to push through to get here. Go out for dinner, grab yourself a drink, or do whatever it is you want to do to celebrate. For something that may be seen as so normal to other families, this is a big deal for one’s like ours, and it’s time to celebrate that.

Congratulations, you made it!

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