The pressure of a dream: first-generation students reflect on their college journeys

'(That stress) puts a chip on your shoulder, to give back to the people that invested in you — your family and your community'

As a first-generation student, Ivan Quintana said he felt immense pressure. He felt the weight of his family's future on his shoulders and thought he couldn't make any mistakes. Each step he took felt essential to the next, and he worried any misstep would lead to failure.

Quintana, a senior studying criminology and criminal justice and public service and public policy, said though he was not the first child in his family to attend college, he still felt the immense stress of living out his parents' dreams of getting a degree. 

"(That stress) puts a chip on your shoulder, to give back to the people that invested in you — your family and your community," he said.

Many college students like Quintana feel they must fulfill their family's and community's wish for the "American dream" and to be successful no matter what it takes. Even though some first-generation college students may not understand how to navigate the college experience, Quintana said they feel the need to persevere because any misstep will not only affect them but also their families. 

"I have to get through this because I may only get this one shot, so (I) take it very seriously," he said.

At first, Quintana was afraid to ask questions because college was an entirely new environment to him. His siblings had gone several years prior, but they weren't able to help him or relate in many situations because the experience had changed since they'd graduated. 

He said he thought about dropping out of college, not because of grades, but due to financial concerns. At that point, Quintana realized he had to reach out to others and get help. 

When he finally did, Quintana said he learned that he didn't need to know everything about college because there are other people who can help him when he has questions. This revelation relieved him of many burdens — the idea had been integral for him throughout college.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself, I had to cut myself some slack, and accept the imperfections that (I had)," he said. "When you're a first-gen student you can quickly become a role model for your family and other children in your community who want to go to college, so you have this perfectionist attitude that you have to do more."

When Catalina Cayetano, a lecturer in the school of Social and Behavioral Sciences, was in college, she faced similar stress as a first-generation student, along with many questions, like "What does this all mean?" 

She said she relied on listening to her instincts and paying close attention to "cultural artifacts" like American sitcoms to better understand the concept of college. Cayetano said it was a miracle for her to attend college in the first place — she was the first in her family to graduate from high school.

"It felt wonderful, but with (a) fear that I wasn't going to be able to make it through," she said.

She had no one to give her advice on how to survive and navigate college, and she constantly felt like an "outsider" and that she "didn’t belong."

No matter how often she doubted herself or went through bouts of "impostor syndrome," Cayetano never gave up because fulfilling her family's dream mattered more to her than any obstacle she had to face.

"Dealing with that pressure alone of knowing that you have to carry the dreams of your parents on your shoulders, you have to push forward, you have to get good grades, you have to do your best to stay focused," Cayetano said. "It is such a heavy load to have as a young person, when you are not really that developed." 

Her parents didn’t understand many aspects of college but it was thanks to their encouragement and personal stories of struggle that helped Cayetano push forward even when she didn’t fully understand it all herself. 

She said her parents' favorite sayings, "échale ganas," and "sí se puede," helped her find purpose and drive to be an example not only for her family but for her community as a whole. 

"You take that first step, and you walk in, you see yourself in that space that you dreamed about, that you heard about, you didn't know how to get there, but you knew you had to get there," Cayetano said.


Reach the reporter at agonz295@asu.edu and follow @adriana_gc_ on Twitter. 

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