First-Gen Stories: Your Story Does Not Start or End with College
My first-gen story does not start or end with college. Neither my parents nor grandparents have obtained a college degree; however; I have always felt the pressure to not only go to college but also to be exceptional throughout the process. I feel many first-gen students can relate to that pressure and understand how stressful it can be to meet expectations that no one within your community can fully support you in meeting. Of course, this helps build resilience and character but also gives us a chance to redefine what success in an educational and professional journey looks like. I was first-gen in multiple ways for my family: the first one to graduate from college, to obtain a full scholarship and compete at a Division One collegiate program; the first of my family to co-found and run a non-profit immediately after under-grad; and the first to work in tech. With all these firsts, one of my major takeaways lies in the journey to college.
My father was from Belize. He migrated at the age of 19. My mother was from Chicago, Illinois. My parents had successful careers and were able to provide a comfortable life for myself and my younger brother. I have six older siblings who also did not obtain any type of college degree. Knowing this, I was confused when I noticed my parents cared deeply about education when it came to my younger brother and me. The energy they put towards me, and school, was not wasted. I feel many first-generation students do not always recognize the values and work ethic their non-formally educated parents instill in them. Many of the organizational, innovative, and survival skills I utilized to get to and through college came from my parents' ability to work hard and think outside of the box in order to make things work for themselves and our family. I think we all must recognize how integral our parents have been to our success even if they did not directly support us. We are who we are and where we are because of them in some way.
When I think about how being a first-gen student has shaped and contributed to my experience at Five9, I think back to my contributions to the community at my university. As a first-gen student, you must find support outside of your family: you must find your community. When you cannot find it, you end up creating the community you were seeking. I did just that. After struggling for a couple of years in college, feeling isolated by athletics and imposter syndrome in any space that was not connected to athletics, I forced myself outside of my comfort zone. That was the best decision I ever made and the effects remain with me to this day.
I learned that I was passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but more importantly I knew I wanted to try to make every environment I occupied more enjoyable and inclusive for all people. I am proud to be able to support Five9’s work towards a more diverse and inclusive work environment by contributing to the leadership efforts of Blatinx and DIC (Dialed in Crew), an Employee Resource Group and grassroots internal community, respectively. If I were not pushed to learn how to navigate and improve the environments I found myself in as a first-gen student, I would not be able to contribute in the way I do here at Five9. Furthermore, Five9’s values of customer focus, integrity, respect, excellence, innovation, and teamwork have further helped me adapt and excel in tech, another new space for me. The teamwork and respect that I have experienced since day one has been vital to my success and my ability to help bring in and educate potential customers about our great and innovative solution.
Even though my journey as a first-gen student is not over, I do believe I learned a lot through this experience. If I could give my younger self some advice, I would tell them to look at every challenge as a new opportunity to learn something new about themselves and the world around them. I would challenge myself not to feel like I had to do everything on my own. I have learned there are people that are willing to help you every step of the way; you just need to seek them out and be brave enough to ask for help. I would also say to always push yourself outside of your comfort zone, the most rewarding outcomes happen there. Lastly, I would reassure myself that everything will work out for the best. Even when you fail, experience a loss, or feel hopeless, it is all for good reasons and will contribute to your success in the near and far future.
I want to end this by sharing that there are many organizations, centers, and groups whose mission is to improve the first-gen college students’ experience. First-gen or soon-to-be first-gen students, do not feel that because you are the first you do not belong or cannot succeed. You may not have someone who can tell you the ins and outs of surviving college and beyond, but that means this is your opportunity to define the experience for yourself. You are limitless and are helping to prove that no matter what anyone can succeed!