Bridging the Gap: Navigating the Isolation of Being First-Gen

As a first-gen college student or professional, you may often find yourself navigating uncharted territories, not just for yourself but for your entire family

First gen isolation

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Being the first, a trailblazer, and a hope for your family and ancestors is a lot of pressure, but it can also be a lonely journey. The more “new” and “first” experiences you have, the larger the gap you may feel from your loved ones. They may support you and want the best for you, but it is often hard for them to understand some experiences that they have not lived themselves. As a first-gen college student or professional, you may often find yourself navigating uncharted territories, not just for yourself but for your entire family. As the bridge between worlds, you may  often feel the pressure of balancing two cultures, two sets of expectations, and, ultimately, two identities. Over time, this bridge may feel longer, and the gap between you and your loved ones may grow, leading to an increased sense of isolation. I am  a first-gen therapist who specializes in working with first-gen professionals. In addition to supporting individuals through these experiences, I have also lived them. When I reflect on my educational journey, I realize that every step that I took toward advancing my career felt like a step away from my family.

A memorable moment came after I was accepted into the master’s program in psychological counseling at Columbia University. I was over the moon with excitement, and then I went to share the news with my parents. You can imagine my surprise when their reactions included, “Te vas a ir a vivir a Colombia? Are you moving to be away from us?” In that moment, I felt frustrated that my parents could not celebrate what felt like a monumental opportunity for me. It was not the reaction I hoped for and I will admit that I felt defeated at the time. As I reflect back, I think they were hearing, “our little girl is going to move out-of-state and we won’t be able to see her anymore.” Yet, I wanted them to understand my joy and be able to celebrate my accomplishments.

After I moved to New York City, I felt the pressure to only share my wins with them, fearing if I shared my challenges they would shame me and tell me I made the wrong decision. This is part of what increased the gap that I felt  between us. In my efforts to “protect them” I was actually pushing them away and increasing my sense of isolation.

My story is just one example of the many instances where first-gens may start to feel a gap between them and their loves ones that leads to a sense of isolation. However, there are ways to reduce both the gap and reduce our feelings of isolation. The key to navigating this isolation lies in several strategies, with the most important  being the pursuit of community. Community provides healing and a sense of belonging. In connecting with others who share similar experiences, we find comfort in the knowledge that we are not alone in our journey.  Seek out others who have similar experiences. Whether it’s through formal support groups, online forums, or casual meetups, these connections remind us that there are many trailblazers out there, each forging their own unique path.

Communication also plays a crucial role, and it involves not only our own learning but also educating our families. By taking the time to share and explain our experiences with our loved ones, we can help close the gaps in understanding between us. This process requires patience and clear communication, especially since these concepts were once new to us too.

Finally, adjusting our expectations of our family’s understanding is crucial. Our families may not fully understand the complex details of an academic assignment or the subtle aspects of workplace politics, but they can share in the joy of our achievements. Meeting them where they are, in terms of comprehension and support, can bring a deeper sense of mutual satisfaction and connection. For example, your loved ones may be able to celebrate  you getting a promotion, but they may not be able to understand what the change in your job title means to you. Let them support you in the way that they can rather than feel frustrated at their inability to fully understand your experience.

The journey of a first-gen individual is uniquely challenging, but these strategies can make the path less isolating. By finding our community, educating our loved ones, and aligning our expectations with reality, we can navigate these experiences with a sense of shared understanding and joy. As first-gens, we’re the trailblazers in our families. Although our journeys might feel lonely at times, it’s also full of opportunities for making connections, learning and growing, and making our dreams a reality.

Dr. Lisette Sanchez is a bilingual licensed psychologist and founder of Calathea Wellness, a virtual practice providing individual therapy in California. She has a passion for working with BIPOC folxs and first-generation professionals.

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