EL PASO — The fall commencement at the University of Texas at El Paso in December was the first one I ever attend and it was my very own.
I am a first generation college graduate, as well as a returning student. Twenty years ago when I first attended college at the age of 18, I had no idea how high the odds were stacked up against me. As it turns out, according to the Pell Institute only 11% of low-income, first generation students ever make it to graduation day.
Being the first in my family to attend college means there was no one who had gone before me that could guide me through the tumultuous road. It was a foreign culture I did not navigate well. I didn’t even know what questions I to ask. I didn’t even know that I could drop classes if I were doing poorly. That mistake haunts me today since it still affects my G.P.A.
Only one adult in my life seriously spoke to me about going to college. It was my high school counselor who I still remember affectionately. He is the one who had college brochures and applications sent to my house. My grandmother, however, did not greet those brochures fondly. She saw them as a threat to the cohesiveness of her family. Mr. Joe Jacquez from Thomas Jefferson High School, has passed away since then, but I would like him to know, even though it took a while, his efforts eventually paid off because, I finally did it!
There wasn’t much thought process that went into picking a college. The only option I was allowed was the one that was in town. It had better be, or else I’d have to suffer the unforgiving wrath of “la familia,” which would never get over the humiliation of being abandoned by their eldest daughter. If you think that is overly dramatic, you don’t know Hispanic abuelas! Commitment to family is something ingrained into Hispanic culture that overrides any ambition.
It really didn’t matter what college I went to though, because I was poorly prepared for any work at the collegiate level. I was working full-time and was also too busy enjoying the newly acquired freedom that comes with adulthood, something that had been non-existent during my teen years. What? You mean I don’t have to go to class if I don’t want to?
After a year of poor performance at UTEP, I decided to drop out to pursue other interests. I was married by then, and starting a family was a perfectly natural plan of action. I don’t even remember anyone asking what had become of my aspirations for college. Everyone seemed to forget that it was something I had wanted, everyone except me.
By the time I was mature enough to deal with the responsibilities of college work, I had already welcomed other enormous, significant responsibilities into this world, three beautiful boys. I surrendered my life to the zealous pursuit of motherhood. It was a worthwhile endeavor — no denying that. My devotion was unmatched. I was determined to provide conscientious, skillful parenting. I devoured parenting books, attended countless parenting workshops, and became a reliable volunteer at school, church, and athletic clubs. I even made a humble attempt at homeschooling for a short period.
I looked for ways to provide an environment conducive to learning. The home life I arranged, dispensed discipline, accommodated curiosity and discovery, and encouraged their development in school. Yet, as much as I attempted to layout a blueprint for academic success for my children, there was always going to be something missing and I couldn’t escape it. As a college dropout, how could I provide the model for the value of learning and self-discipline? As a college dropout with limited number of experiences, and undeveloped potential, I had to admit that it was the one thing all the mommy ambition I mustered up could never accomplish.
Although, my life was busy, meaningful and even fulfilling, there was a gnawing sense that being a wife and mother was only the beginning of the things I would do with my life. I wanted something more. I had an overwhelming desire to learn and explore my world, and figure out what more I can contribute to it.
Allegra Goodman, author of Kaaterskill Falls describes the desire of a mother to become something more: “What are all the opportunities for someone who has only been a mother? Not merely a mother, as if it were unimportant, but only a mother. All consuming. Only a cherisher and a teacher, a feeder of souls, hungry and mysterious, and always becoming more like themselves. What she wants is the chance to shape something that cannot become anything else, only hers. To truly create something, material, definable, self-limited.” Indeed, I see my education as an essential path to self-discovery, self-creation and actualization.
Returning to school has embarked me on an adventurous journey of establishing my own identity. The challenges presented to me during these years have allowed me to discover a storehouse of strengths and resources that developed through hard work and perseverance. Honestly, I didn’t always know I could accomplish every task that was required of me. At times I was overcome with the conflict of balancing responsibilities at home and at school. Other times I was confronted with the limitations and high expectations I placed on myself. I learned to accept those and love myself anyway.
When I take inventory of the things I have accomplished so far, I am amazed. My friend described first generation graduates as pioneers, trailblazers, and innovators and although my story is not an uncommon one, it is extraordinary to my family.
I now look to my future armed with confidence and tenacity. I already know what I can accomplish. Aside from the spirit of celebration my family feels right now, to have the first graduate in the family, they are looking for more to follow in my footsteps. My little brother who is not far behind, majoring in physics, will be next. I’ll be helping my sons with the college application process soon and you can be assured I’ll be letting them know when it’s a good idea to drop a class.