Miroslava Chavez-Garcia

What does it mean to be a first-generation college student?

It means not knowing what you don't know.

Hind sight, as they say, is 20-20. More than thirty years later, I now know that I knew little to nothing about college life when I stepped foot as a freshman on the UCLA campus in fall 1986. Raised in a predominantly Mexican, Mexican American, and African American working class neighborhood in east San Jose and later, downtown San Jose, where I moved at the age of 12 after my parents died in a car accident (we had been traveling in Mexico for vacation when we suffered a horrific crash five years earlier in 1981), I knew little of what to expect in Westood, California. Simply put, living a sheltered life in a barrio (ethnic neighborhood), I had little exposure to class, race, ethnic, and cultural differences. I didn't know I was poor and from the "ghetto," as some would later describe my neighborhood. I didn't know any Jewish people and didn't know I would meet many at UCLA and know little about their culture. And while I did fairly well in my all-girls, Catholic high school, I knew close to nothing about what it took to succeed academically, socially, and personally in college.

I didn't know how to take notes properly or how study intensely for midterms and finals. I also didn't know how much to read or what to read and how to write and revise papers, even though I studied long and hard hours, visited tutors, and put my mind to my studies. I also didn't know that a lot of my peers had some of these insights under their belts and had gained them from their parents, aunts, uncles, and sometimes grandparents, who had attended college and had passed on tips, shared strategies, taken them on multiple campus tours, and prepared them intellectually and emotionally for the challenges they would experience. In high school, I didn't even know what "Cal" (the short-hand term for UC Berkeley) meant or where it was located, even though I grew up in the south bay. I had never visited Berkeley. Why would my working class Mexican parents go there in the 1980s? San Francisco was as exotic and foreign as it got. For me, UCLA was an oasis of sorts but also, as I called it, Disneyland, a bubble, and a veneer for the gritty world that I knew. I hated UCLA. I cried every week of my first quarter and went home as often as I could.

It means not knowing where to go for help or how to ask for help and not realizing that it is okay to ask for help.

As an undergraduate, I recall often feeling frustrated and lost in my classes not knowing where to turn to for help. Luckily, I had the support of Affirmative Action programs geared towards assisting historically underrepresented minorities succeed in college. At UCLA, it was called Academic Advancement Program (AAP) and it provided students like myself peer counseling, tutoring, and support with navigating financial assistance, the registrar, among other offices on campus. I have no doubt that my peer counselor and math, economics, and English tutors proved crucial to my ability to succeed in my studies. Without them I would not have learned how to advocate for myself. As a first-generation college student, I needed all the insight I could get, especially in finding my way around a campus with 30,000+ students, most of whom came from what seemed to me to be foreign worlds, i.e., white or Asian American middle class families. Later I would realize the campus community was more diverse than I had imagined. I have to admit, too, that I was lucky that my older brother—my only sibling—was a student at UCLA, too, but we communicated infrequently and he provided little advice. Only later would we grow closer. Looking back, I now realize that he, like me, struggled to find his way. I am happy and proud to report that, today, he is a medical doctor with a private clinic and highly successful career.

It means feeling invisible and irrelevant.

As a first-generation college student, you're often unfamiliar with campus culture, how to fit in, how to make friends, and how to find your way around classes and plan for your career. You also often don't see your experiences validated or reflected in the faculty or the curriculum. The lectures you hear, the assignments you complete, the films you watch, books you read, and the tests you take often have little to do with the world where you come from. More importantly, you're often not ready to realize that, in the view of many of your peers, you don't exist. That is, your reality is not their reality. While this may or may not be true, the most important thing is to figure out how to navigate those circumstances and how to focus on what you want to accomplish while you're in school. The truth is that most of us are invisible to each other and we have to learn how to cope with it but not let it stand in the way of what we want to achieve.

It means feeling like you don't belong and you're not wanted, that is, unwelcomed and intrusive.

When you're not familiar with campus culture or prepared for campus life, it often feels like you don't belong because you don't see yourself and your community represented or validated. When you don't see people who look like you or who have shared similar experiences, you feel like an unwelcomed guest. I recall often feeling like I wanted the wall to swallow me or to find a place to hide where no one would see me because, in my mind, I stood out like a sore thumb. Not knowing how to cope with such a foreign environment or how to make it work for me put me at a disadvantage emotionally and personally and, eventually, academically.

It means facing many, many challenges.  However...       

With the guidance of peer counselors, tutors, and, later, close friends as well as supportive professors, I have to admit, through many bumps and bruises along the way, I figured out the essentials in navigating undergraduate life. I learned that it takes perseverance, drive, and single-minded focus as well as a thick skin. I also learned that finding a niche—a campus club, organization, or activity—was key to my success and feeling like I belonged. For me, that proved to be crew or rowing, which I had the opportunity to carry out for four years at UCLA. Those were the best days of my undergraduate studies, meeting outstanding women (who became my best friends and mentors) and pushing beyond my limits. I took those lessons and never looked back.

Miroslava Chavez-Garcia
Professor, Department of History
UC Santa Barbara