What does it mean to be first-gen? This is a question that I often ask myself and my clients. As a therapist who specializes in working with fellow first-gens, I understand the importance of the first-gen identity. To me, being the first in your family to pursue a college education is a unique experience filled with challenges, difficult decisions, and tremendous accomplishments.
A common challenge is a feeling of disconnection and isolation from both peers and loved ones. At first, the isolation is related to learning how to navigate a new and unfamiliar environment. As you learn how to navigate the new environment, you are tasked to create a bridge between the new culture and your family. Like many others, the first bridge I created for my family was by learning a new language and being the English translator.
As I progressed through my journey, the feelings of isolation grew, and the bridge felt longer. I was raised to value mi familia above all but was then faced with my first difficult decision, whether or not to move away for college. That was the first time the bridge started to feel too long, a gap instead of a connection. My parents supported my decision to pursue an education but did not want me to move away from home. I remember my parents telling me that I had been “brainwashed” when I shared that I had decided to live in a university dorm two hours away. This is just one example of a difficult decision that many first-gens make on their journey as they navigate two worlds– to move away from family in pursuit of a goal or dream. Sound familiar?
Over time, we were able to shorten the bridge again. I realized that my parents had to process my decision to move away on their own timeline. My mother recently shared that a coworker helped her understand and make peace with my decision to move away. He told her “los hijos son prestados, tienes que dejarlos volar.” This roughly translates to, “children are borrowed, and you need to let them fly.” My mother began to understand that it was important and that I was finding my way. I am grateful my mother had someone who helped her gain a different perspective.
Everyone has to make difficult decisions, but for many first-gens, the cost of these decisions can feel too great of a sacrifice. For example, you may experience additional isolation because you cannot spend a holiday with your family due to the high cost of travel. Alternatively, your new experiences may seem too unrelatable for your loved ones and may make you feel like a stranger in your home. Being the bridge between your family and the new world is a lot of pressure. The pressure frequently impacts an individual’s mental health and can lead to feeling like an impostor, as well as anxiety and depression symptoms. Additionally, every decision you make can lengthen the bridge and intensify the feeling of isolation. However, there are many strengths of being first-gen that can alleviate this distress.
Some of the strengths include adaptability and resourcefulness. Navigating two worlds enhances one’s ability to adapt to different situations. This includes the new and evolving dynamic between an individual and their loved ones. Adaptability may also mean practicing acceptance when realizing the person we love has a fixed mindset and may take longer to or may never understand the new reality. Being resourceful means an individual will seek out resources when needed. This may mean sharing information with your loved ones to help them process and understand the changes happening for you.
These strengths may help shorten the length of the bridge, but they may not necessarily eliminate the feelings of isolation. This is when it is important to lean on another first-gen strength, community building. This may be joining or even starting a club or employee resource group with like-minded people. Community building can also be confiding in a trusted loved one and being able to offer each other support.
At times, the feelings of isolation may be too overwhelming and can lead to feelings of hopelessness. If you begin to feel hopeless, it may indicate that you would benefit from professional support. If you are a student, consider checking out the services offered at your university counseling center. Most counseling centers offer free or reduced-cost services for students. If you are a professional, take time to learn more about what mental health benefits your employer offers and set up an appointment with a mental health professional. If you do not have therapy as a health benefit, you can contact mental health professionals individually to learn more about any reduced fee slots available; Latinx Therapy is a great directory to get you started. Another resource for reduced-cost mental health services is the Open Path Psychotherapy Collective. You can also call a crisis hotline if you need to talk or text with someone. Here are a few options:
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: 9-8-8
LGBTQ – The Trevor Lifeline: 1-866-488-7386
Trans Crisis Line:1-877-565-8860
Crisis Text Line: Text HELLO to 741-741
Regardless of your approach, you can learn how to adapt and shift the feeling of isolation. While it is a lonely journey, it is also a shared journey. Let’s continue to uplift and support one another.