What I Learned as a Latina First-Gen Student at a Liberal Arts College

When I think about the education I received throughout my life, I consider myself an incredibly lucky first gen Latina

Latina first gen college

Photos courtesy of Sofía Aguilar

When I think about the education I received throughout my life, I consider myself an incredibly lucky first gen Latina. From childhood on, I jumped between a number of private and public schools that each prepared me in some way for college, which neither of my parents graduated from. Even now, I’ll answer a questionnaire or form that asks, “What is the highest level of education your parents received?” with “Some college,” and feel a complicated mix of sadness for what they didn’t achieve, pride for what I did, and gratitude for what they sacrificed to get me to where I am today. But as a first-gen student applying for colleges, I remember feeling an enormous pressure to get into a good school and make it all worth it for my parents—the drives to all my extracurricular activities, their overtime hours, their delicate finances they somehow made stretch. So in 2017 when I got into my dream college, Sarah Lawrence College, I couldn’t have been more excited. But I was so focused on getting in and fantasizing about campus life, that I wasn’t prepared for what I would experience when I  actually got there. Unfortunately, it wasn’t everything I wanted.

I want to preface this by saying I’m incredibly grateful to Sarah Lawrence for the most part. As a private liberal arts college in New York, it differs from a traditional four-year university in that it has a much broader and more flexible approach to education. Rather than expecting students to choose a major, my school allows students to choose classes in whatever we’re interested in, making it perfect for those still finding their academic passion. All they ask is that we diversify our course choices across three of the four disciplines: Creative and Performing Arts, History and the Social Sciences, Humanities, and Science and Mathematics. It isn’t like this at every liberal arts college but it was one of the main reasons I applied, and I ended up graduating with credits for courses in creative writing, film, literature, history, and more. I loved my professors, found good friends I still keep in touch with today, and was able to take advantage of networking opportunities, internships, and study abroad semesters that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Even if given the chance, I wouldn’t give any of that up for anything.

But my school suffered (and continues to suffer) from the same problem plaguing many colleges across the country today: they don’t know what to do with first-gen students, especially if they’re BIPOC or low-income. They don’t know how to integrate us into the culture of the campus or how to respond to our needs because an overwhelming majority of the student population is white and wealthy (or at least, come from wealthy families). Just a glance at Sarah Lawrence’s recent demographic statistics reveals a very different story than what they might advertise on their website and social media. In 2020, 63 percent of enrolled students identified as white, followed by a shocking 10 percent Latino, 6 percent Black and African American, 5 percent Asian, and zero percent Native American, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander.

I wish I had known that beforehand.  I was the only Latina in my dorm room, the only one in many of my courses, the one who’d most resemble the cafeteria cooks and cleaning crew. That I’d be made to feel like even though I had passed through this level of prestige and accomplishment, I’d never truly belong. In my sophomore semester, I took a Latin American history course taught by a white professor, I was one of three BIPOC students on the roster. I regularly faced racially and ethnically-charged behavior and comments that went unpunished in the classroom. I experienced microaggressions at a level I never had before, like classmates questioning my use of Spanish in my writing and touching my hair without asking.

I only saw a handful of professors who looked like me or shared my background, who sought to understand me and the life experience I brought to the table. Even in collaboration with other BIPOC students, it was hard to bring our concerns to the (mostly white) administration, who didn’t understand or were reluctant to offer us the help and support we needed. Like more funds for our identity groups or an actually fair meal plan system that didn’t only benefit the students from higher-income students who could afford to purchase several meals a day.

On campus, that was the other problem, the issue of family income. While those statistics aren’t readily available across the Internet, the wealth divides between students were frequently made clear to me in everything from school supplies to where we were spending our holiday breaks. I was in classrooms with people whose parents were a part of or owned yacht clubs, whose parents were in the film industry as actors or directors, and who had no idea what I was talking about when I told them where in California I was from because it wasn’t a popular, rich neighborhood.

While it’s definitely good to have a mix of people in a community, to come from different backgrounds and experiences, I always felt like I wasn’t good enough to be there because of how much less money my parents made, plus the fact that neither had graduated college. I was a very lucky kid growing up but I didn’t spend my vacations on a family-owned boat and sure wasn’t on a first-name basis with the corporate board of Disney.

My imposter syndrome affected my ability to study, work, and socialize. At my worst, I even remember calling my mom in the middle of the night to tell her what was going on, sobbing and asking for her help. Even if neither of us had any college experience to compare to what I was going through, to wonder if it was normal to be crying because my culture, my family, and I had never felt smaller or uglier or more insignificant or more alone. What I didn’t know yet was that I had to turn it into my power.

The truth is, no one ever went out of their way to make me feel like my school was where I was supposed to be. I had to learn on my own to adapt to my surroundings, to push myself to succeed despite all the environmental factors standing in my way. I had to ignore all the signs telling me I hadn’t earned my place at one of the most prestigious colleges in the country as a Latina and a first-gen student. I threw myself into my studies, became a member of the Latinx identity group (later becoming a co-chair), started my own writing club, attended events, and submitted my writing to all the school’s literary journals, some of which was accepted and published. I refused to stay silent and grew resilient, even if I shouldn’t have had to.

What I experienced is not unique to liberal arts colleges. But it felt even worse considering that these kinds of institutions, especially Sarah Lawrence, pride themselves on their progressive attitudes toward diversity and inclusion (two buzzwords that honestly have become meaningless), and rights for marginalized communities, but don’t follow through in real life. Still, I have faith and cheer on this next generation of college students across the country as they build their strength, fight for their place at the table, and use their voices to change their college campuses. These academic institutions weren’t made for the marginalized, for women and first-gen students and students of color, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make them ours, make them better, and carry that power with us in college and beyond.

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