An open letter to first-generation students

Every journey toward the elusive, impossible American dream is different. For my family, it was my mother enduring the cycle of violence at the hands of my father in Brompton, Jamaica. She believed he planned to bring her to America so they could work to buy a house for our family. His true plan was isolation.

Through the Violence Against Women Act and police reports, my mother’s mutilation is the cross upon which our permanent residency was born. As working-class immigrants now entirely dependent on a domestic worker’s salary, our traumas weren’t solved by mere residency. You don’t forget squeezing under an umbrella at the bus stop as a storm rages. Memories of sleeping on an iron fold-up bed in your grandmother’s one-room apartment become a part of who you are.

As a first-generation, low-income college student, you can’t help but reflect on your parents’ two or three jobs, the corners cut, the anger and frustration. It was years in the making. You cannot forget where you came from.

For the next four years, you will be ensnared in a conflict between seeking a paycheck that’ll feed your entire family and a career fighting injustice and dismantling oppressive systems. Hopefully, you can obtain both. You and your family understand that your education—forever viewed as a ticket out of poverty—will change your life.

For the time being, the traumas of poverty, racism and bigotry do not disappear once you step into the rarified air of a prestigious institution.

Phone calls home to Mom, Dad, Abuela or Tío rejuvenate your spirit the way the right hymn does at Sunday service. Those calls also update you on the growing sickness of a family member, mounting medical bills and the rising cost of groceries.

Sometimes being at school makes your home life worse. While I sat in Russian literature, my mother sobbed because we were $600 short on rent. Tuition for that month, however, was paid in full.

You might have grown up in a neighborhood where grocers sell no fruits or vegetables, or where schools have no heaters. When you come to Vassar, you’ll see children of the 10 percent pay for $20 train tickets to the city every weekend. They’ll also eat BurgerFi and Twisted Soul long after their Arlington Bucks have maxed out.

Their families and schools groomed them for higher-education etiquette. They learned how to sound “articulate” during class. They learned to stop by a professor’s office hours for help. After all, their presence at Vassars, Browns and Swarthmores was expected at their very founding. If you didn’t study in the one percent’s schools, you didn’t receive the “right” education. You might fight back tears during class seminars, afraid of sounding stupid and undeserving of the chair you sit in.

It is this institution’s job to ensure a sense of belonging to the students it has historically excluded, and to whom it now provides affordable, world-class education. At some point, you learn to embrace what it means to be a first-generation, low-income and (oftentimes) student of color. Despite the difficulties these identities have caused you, your success thus far is a testament to your endurance. You made it here despite the daily traumas of orchestrated economic and racial oppression—challenges that well-off, white peers did not have to face.

Once here, you might encounter the STEM professor who doesn’t see your potential. You might hear the slow wheels turn on the Safety and Security car that trails you after a TA party. You will be reminded countless times that this place was originally not built for you. Without doubt, these experiences will wound your spirit, but Vassar is not short of an administrator, professor or friend willing to listen. They’re there in times of crisis to lend wisdom.

In one of my Deece dinners with Assistant Professor of Education Jaime Del Razo, we discussed the internal and external identity clashes higher-education produces for the first-gen, low-income student of color. The Vassar label changes your relationship with your family, the people you grew up with and others who’ve shared similar hardships.

Typical family quarrels might devolve into a family member’s defense of their “street smarts” to downplay their lack of a college degree. Cousins might think you look down on them because you’re going to a fancy school. Even your presence in the City of Poughkeepsie is warped by the seemingly impenetrable prestige of this institution. Unlike your white peers, you might see your aunts, uncles and siblings in the faces you see ambling through Poughkeepsie. Given the opportunity to tutor Poughkeepsie middle schoolers, you might see the faces of kids who run around your neighborhood on theirs. If you get to stroll through a beauty supply store in downtown Poughkeepsie, the products that line the shelves don’t differ from the ones in the stores back home.

I have not lived the same life as Black and Brown Poughkeepsie residents. When I covered Dutchess County’s new jail for the Miscellany, I couldn’t relate with my interviewees who live with gun violence that’ll send some of their neighbors to that jail or to the grave. We have all, however, been prey to the common economic and racial pressures that define our existence in this country. When you tell the stylist doing your hair or the cashier in the beauty supply store that you’re a Vassar student, there’s a shift in the atmosphere. Vassar’s billion-dollar endowment, fairytale-like campus and intellectual elitism loom above your shared struggles. The distance from them has been established. Even in Vassar’s Black Student Union, which operates in the interest of Black people’s liberation, conversations among the executive board concerning community engagement must include our potential elitism.

Vassar is far from perfect, just like any predominantly white college. Attempting to acclimate at a place that has historically shut your community out is nothing short of traumatic. As you navigate life these opening days at Vassar, however, know that you can find community here. You are not alone.

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