The Dark Side for a First-Generation College Graduate

We celebrate individuals from low-income families who graduate college despite the odds. And rightfully so. Obtaining a Bachelor's (or Master's or Doctorate) degree is an achievement in and of itself. Consider the shortage of resources and quality teaching that often plagues low-income schools and the accomplishment is even more impressive. We applaud those individuals and are genuinely happy for them. But no one ever talks about how lonely they feel.

I grew up in a poor neighborhood in Dallas, Texas. My parents had attended some college but never finished. Most of my relatives didn't attend a university at all. The word "college" just wasn't a part of our vocabulary. People had more immediate concerns. For instance, my cousin, whom I play videos games with and watched cartoons with when we were young, was killed in a police chase. Instead of using Facebook, I can just Google many of my uncles and cousins to see what they've been up to. Often, the results involve violence or incarceration. I didn't know what I wanted to be but I knew that wasn't the life for me. College was my escape. However, distancing myself from that environment of drug abuse, crime and violence, unfortunately, also meant becoming distant from family members involved.

That distance began freshman year. Who in my family could I turn to for help on a research paper? Who would teach me the time management skills necessary to survive the relentless onslaught of exams and essays? No one. Though my family and friends prayed for me and supported me the best they could, they couldn't sympathize with what I was going through or provide any pertinent advice. I was on my own.

Fast forward to graduation and I come out a changed man. I've traveled abroad several times, taken internships, shot student films, gained fresh perspectives from professors and people of different backgrounds and more. It was comfortable staying in that academic bubble where we were all on the same wavelength. Until I returned home. If birds of a feather flocked together, that meant I couldn't associate with those from my past. Honestly, I tried my best to reconnect somehow but failed. There were oceans between us. We spoke two different languages.

Some years ago I taught a Spanish summer program to American high school students in Spain. The program cost $10,000 so you can imagine the kind of kids who participated. These students actively traded in the stock market, competed in debate teams nationwide, maintained personal websites, wrote for established blogs and participated in several other activities that would make them competitive on college applications. It all made sense when I met their parents. These were children of doctors, lawyers and businessmen, men and women who fully understand what it takes to graduate college and lead successful careers. In these families, there's no question whether their children would go to college. I yearn for the day that more families of color look like this. I long for the moment that, for people who look like me, going to college won't mean leaving behind their "hood," but continuing a legacy of success in their family.

I'm tired of seeing first-generation college graduates of color. The problem I have with it is the word "first." When will I start meeting second-generation, third, fourth? I rarely encounter a person of color whose parents and grandparents went to college. It's my hope that that will change in my lifetime, that we'll reach a saturation point where a college-educated Latino or black American is the norm. I recognize that dream sounds far-fetched but, after all, so did the idea of having a black President. So did the idea of blacks doing anything in this country other than pick cotton.