Trial by fire: The experience of navigating college as a first-gen

first-genThe Statue of Liberty, the Renewal of Symbol at FIU | Mhyanif Lozada, PantherNOW

Kaysea Suzana | Assistant Entertainment Director

FIU defines a “first-gen” as a student whose parents had not earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. 

I fall under this category since both my mother from Nicaragua and father from the Dominican Republic did not earn a degree in either their home countries or in the States.

I, also born in Nicaragua, arrived in Florida at around seven years old with both of my parents. What this meant was that I was the one to learn English and to educate both them and I about American society, but more importantly American education.

Though I have two older half-siblings, one lived in Nicaragua all the way up to his late teens, and my sister was born in the States but grew up distant from her other family, eventually enrolling at Miami-Dade College and FIU.

Growing up without a firm connection to my siblings led to me not having their guidance, especially when it came to figuring out what to do after graduating from high school.

It was here that I had to make a decision: do I pursue the nebulous world that was college? It was a world I only had a rough understanding of from movies and games.

I had no idea what the life of a college student was because I didn’t get that information from my family or school. 

My school did not teach us what majors or minors were, and counselors rarely talked about navigating college websites.

Well into my senior year of high school, I was unaware that college operated on a credit-based system, one that dictated your progress, especially since at this point I imagined college to be similar to how secondary schools worked in terms of academic progress. 

In my ignorance, I had no knowledge of what “minors” were, or certificates and college internships. I didn’t understand the utility of what a specific major would offer you, or how one could better utilize their college experiences and resources.

My next move was then to thrust myself into this world, and hope for the best. I weighed carefully the idea of choosing a career path that would either grant me money, but perhaps lead me to being miserable, or one that would be in a more enjoyable field, but grant me less financial security.

Thinking less of my skills, I applied to only one college: Miami-Dade, and enrolled in their English literature track. I was enamored with the idea of creative writing but wanted to separate my work life from my passions, so I took the compromise of choosing a track that would help me become a book editor.

In just two semesters, while working full-time at a warehouse by day, and taking online classes at night, I managed to graduate with my associate’s degree, just ten months after my high school graduation. 

My experience at MDC taught me a little more about the college infrastructure, and appointments with advisors guided me a bit more in narrowing my scope of majors to find one that suited me for my professional endeavors.

Upon transferring to FIU, I found it incredibly difficult to navigate the campus, its own online systems, and its methods of adjudicating appointments.

I became involved in student media, hoping to learn the journalistic trade as another notch in my belt in case editorial work was not cut out for me, or if the job market was not pleasant.

This turned out to be the best decision I could make, as journalistic work allowed me to challenge myself, both as a professional and as a person.

As someone struggling with an anxiety disorder, no more could I hide behind my fears– my new role as a journalist forced me to interact with people, to ask difficult questions, leading to perhaps awkward moments. 

It was here that I learned the important skills of info-gathering, formulating questions and statements, as well as learning tact and discipline.

Overall, though I lacked much prior knowledge from traditional resources like my family and secondary school, I managed to acquire a wealth of information from my exploration of college and university assets.

Though my ignorance in entering college perhaps gave me a disadvantage in consideration of my peers, where I lacked scholarships, guidance, and general knowledge of college admissions, I do not regret the experiences I have had. 

I believe everything happens for a reason, and whatever I did not have before, I have tried and will try to achieve. I know that the seeds I sow today will be the fruits of my labor tomorrow.

Though it’s difficult to be a first-gen student in college due to the lack of guidance, I’m glad I continued my education, because it has challenged me as both a person and as an academic. 

As FIU celebrates first-gen day, I’m proud of myself for being able to grow despite many educational, financial, and personal struggles.

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