First-gen NU students reflect on their college experiences

Video edited by Molly Glick

ltpI don’t FaceTime you as much anymore because your red eyes sadden me. You smile at me and tell me everything is going okay at home.

Maiye, I always know more than you know. Your back aches from spending hours on your feet. Your heart aches because your youngest was pushed out of high school.

Your eyes look at me with so much hope because I am your first.

I am your first child in this world, the first in our family to immigrate, the first to go to university.

Sometimes, I want to cry with you, too.

They don’t always understand me here. They pretend I don’t exist, use words and mannerisms I don’t understand and make me feel like I do not belong. I do not, but you taught me that I must create belonging for myself. I will remember you coming home from work and telling me, “I know my English is not good, but my work is good. That is why they love me.”

You’ve shown me that only I can create my own path to success; because no one will build it for me. Getting here and navigating has been hard, but, Maiye, I am doing it.

I know you are scared. I’ve been raped, jailed, stalked and more since I started at Northwestern. Yet you remain hopeful. I’ve seen the world from Israel to Detroit to Germany. In spite of my hardships, I’ve continued to excel academically. I helped launch the Black Mentorship Program, a peer-to-peer organization that provides Black first-years with the support and community I did not have coming in. I’ve continued to spark controversy with a “Canada Goose is Classist” poster and support others who are also first-generation and low-income. I’ve done so much with what I have because I know there’s no other choice.

It’s not your fault that life has happened this way. You’ve done so much more than you realize, Maiye. You’ve shown me resiliency in the face of abuse and neglect. You’ve shown me how to give more than I have to others. Without these lessons, I would not be the person I am today.

You couldn’t give me silver spoons, but you gave me love. Thank you, Maiye. This degree will always be for you.

Dear family,

I’m about to become the first person in our family to graduate from a four-year institution. I thought I had already shown our family great honor after being the first to graduate from high school, but now this accomplishment means so much more. This is the event that is going to change our lives forever.

In my short time at Northwestern, I have already been able to experience what life has in store for me. I came into this school completely penniless. There were times when I had a negative value in my bank account, and it was difficult. I worked at strange hours to try to make enough money to make it by. This school broke me.

I didn’t realize how difficult it was all going to be for me. I had to fight depression and poverty at the same time. And after four long years of fighting, I can finally say I’ve made it out. I learned how to navigate this system and make the best of it. During my time here, I worked on five separate scientific research projects and will have studied abroad in Ecuador and Costa Rica. This school taught me things about myself I would have never imagined. High school was so easy for me compared to this academic environment. I had to learn the hard way what my limits were. I’m now leaving here a completely different person, one who has been strengthened by this rigorous curriculum and ready to accept even greater challenges coming my way.

Although I have great pride in what I have accomplished, I also feel great sorrow. I’m sorry for not calling as much as I should have. I’m sorry I never relied on you. I’m sorry I never sent money back home. And, Mom, I know you must feel sorry, too. I know it’s difficult to not be able to send over any money when you knew I was struggling. I know it’s difficult for me to come home and share about what I’ve learned and not be able to understand any of it. I would also like to believe that you feel sorry for denying that I had a mental illness and making me feel like it was God’s way of punishing me. It’s difficult for all of us. I know that I will never be able to fully relate with you, Mom, because although we have similar roots, we are now in different worlds.

I wish I could offer more to you and make your wildest dreams come true. I wish you didn’t have to struggle anymore. How I wish you didn’t have to work 50 hours a week to help keep our family afloat. You’ve lived a hard life and I would like to imagine that our lives are going to be different from now on, but I don’t know. All I do know is that we’re both fighters and we’ll figure it out as it comes. The greatest thing you taught me was resilience, and I know we’re going to be resilient together.

Love, Jennifer

I’m incredibly lucky to have you two as parents. I couldn’t have asked for parents who didn’t let me quit at the first sign of failure, who told me after my first ACT that I could do way better, and reminded me that a misstep - a failed Calculus exam, getting rejected from a dream school - didn’t mean that all was lost. Even though you didn’t want me to be a writer because you thought I wasn’t going to make money, you taught me that I need to stick up for myself because if I can’t, who will? There was no hand holding the entire way through college, but it’s because of you that I’m determined to get to the finish line. I’m sorry for not calling as much as I promised I would. I’m sorry for not visiting home as much as I should. I already know what Mom is going to say: “Don’t say sorry, just do it!” I have one year left to do the things I’ve been too scared to do and the ones I’ve been saving for the right time – though I’ve learned there is no such thing as a “right time”.

I’m going to be honest with you – some classes will be more memorable than others. That time I took statistics for the first (and last) time my sophomore year? I barely scraped by , it only confirmed my brain’s inability to do anything STEM-related, which probably doesn’t surprise you. Remember how I told you fall quarter freshman year that I was taking a political science class? Yeah well, I remember that class just as well as you remember me telling you about it, nothing really stuck. I promise I will remember some lessons from college, just not all of them.

I can tell there’s just as much fear as excitement in your voice every time you tell someone I’m going to graduate soon. Just when we’re all getting comfortable with where I’m at, I’ll be leaving to pursue something more challenging than what I’ve just experienced. Lucky for me, I’ll have you both as guides.. Even when I refused to believe that you knew what I was going through, you both never stopped supporting me. I should’ve apologized a long time ago for every time I said, and sometimes still say, “Oh, if only you could go to college and understand what it’s like!”

You both know exactly what it’s like to start college. You know what it’s like to leave home for the first time, thrown into an entirely different environment that no amount of training or television show could prepare you for. You both felt the feeling of eating in a dining hall, longing for the taste of your mother’s cooking and the company of your family, and the disappointment you feel when they serve tasteless Mexican food. You have both sat in a classroom with strangers who are just as anxious as you are, but in your situation, everyone’s there to learn English, so they can survive. You know what it’s like to not fit in, to try so hard but lose yourself in the process. You forced yourself to go out and meet people, with whom you knew you have nothing in common with,telling yourself that the reason you’re dressing, drinking and donning this new persona is because you’ll feel at home here. The feeling of wanting to be anywhere else than where you are now is one too familiar and painful. I’m sorry for not telling you this sooner.

I’m one year short of earning my bachelor’s degree, something that I will continue to tell myself is years away in order to cope with reality. This means you’re one year away from earning a degree.You’re both well aware of it, as you kept reminding me of it this past winter break. Four years ago, I know you would’ve preferred it be in engineering, math, or other subjects that, from my knowledge, have a stamp of approval from the Latino community. Regardless,, this degree is yours just as much as it is mine. Sure, it would’ve been nice if you could’ve shown up to my 9 a.m. classes when I was too lazy to get out of bed, but I’ll get over it. If only Mom were here to nudge me awake after one too many alarm snoozes; the haste in her voice was always the reason I could get ready in 15 minutes.

It doesn’t feel like it’s been more than two years since Mom and I held each other and cried in the 5th floor 1835 Hinman lounge. It can’t have been two years since Dad handed me that $100 bill and said, “This is twice the amount I had in my pocket when I came here.” This season of our lives doesn’t remotely feel close to being over. Thank you for everything, and for being there for every step of the way. Thank you for giving me the privilege of a college education, and for believing in me when I wanted to give up. I haven’t made it to the end yet, but I can’t wait to celebrate when the time comes. This one’s for you, Mom and Dad.

Love, Elly

As my time at Northwestern comes to a close, I want to thank you both. It’s difficult to find the right words that properly convey my appreciation, and I’m not confident this letter will do me much justice. I’m sitting in Norris watching the waves out on the lake and this is starting to feel more like a letter of congratulation. When I receive my diploma in June, it will represent your accomplishment far more than my own. Four years ago, I embarked on a journey to become the first college graduate in our family. It all started as a dream you both shared: creating a future where your children would never doubt their promise and importance in this world, nor experience the same lost opportunities and roadblocks.

As you know I haven’t always felt like I had a place here. Being first-generation at a school like Northwestern has made me question if I was built to succeed in a place geared toward affluence. On my first day of freshman year, I remember taking a seat near the front in my chemistry lecture hall and hearing my peers talking about the generations of family members who had gone into medicine.. Hearing the students around me bond over their connections in research and medicine made me feel like out of place and likely to inevitably fail. In those moments, I reminded myself that my most challenging times to come would pale in comparison to the sacrifices you both have made to get me here. I cannot tell you how much our daily phone calls and weekends back home in River Forest, filled with squeeze hugs and special home-cooked meals, have fueled me to find my place here. The love in your smiles and the warmth of your hugs are my greatest source of inspiration when I feel like I’m not cut out for an such an unfamiliar environment.

In my time at Northwestern I have learned many things, but the most profound lessons I have learned in life have come from you both. After spending four years surrounded by esteemed professors, I can say that the most wise instructors I have ever had are the two of you. You have each taught me how to love boldly, to give freely, to live righteously even when no one is looking, and Dad— to exemplify faith and courage even in the face of death.

Dad—I love you more than you will ever know. My biggest point of pride will always be that I am your little girl. You are my hero and I will carry you in my heart until we are together again.

Mom— you are my absolute best friend. I cannot thank you enough for showing me what strong womanhood looks like. I pray I can be half the woman that you are when I am older. I love you, always.

To my brothers—As we begin to find greater prosperity as a function of our education, share with others any gifts that our successes afford us and remember that real esteem and merit are the product of your character. Even when we desperately needed others’ help and support, Mom opened our doors to struggling relatives and Dad worked overtime to help friends, family and strangers, often without compensation. I hope you both will follow in their footsteps and continue living lives in service of others. I love you both more than you will ever know and pray you both feel Dad’s utmost love and respect when thinking about the incredible men you both have become. I could not be any prouder to be your sister. You both are more than just my brothers, you are my best friends.

Love, Marissa