Finding my confidence as a first-generation student

A student writes about her experience with mental health issues as a first-generation student.

Growing up, both of my parents had healthy, fruitful careers — and no college degrees.

My mom spent her post-high school days walking around Center City, asking for job applications from anyone who would give her a chance. 

My dad spent his early 20s driving trucks across the Midwest. Once he was ready to settle down, he found a job in Philadelphia and worked his way up the corporate ladder. 

They are the living embodiment of the classic American dream — through hard work, you can do whatever you set your mind to. 

For a long time, I figured this is what I would do. I thought I would do well in high school, graduate, move to the city, and somehow get a sustainable, well-paying job. 

But a lot has changed since my parents’ time. For many careers, a bachelor’s degree is necessary just to get an entry-level job. Because of this new emphasis on higher education, I had to change how I saw my future, and  I quickly realized I’d be following a very different path than my parents had. 

When I applied to colleges, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I just knew it was something I was supposed to do, according to my parents, my high school counselors and my friends. 

As one of the few hundred Temple freshmen who are the first of their family to attend college, I felt very isolated and unsure of what college had in store for me. 

Going into my first semester, I experienced new levels of stress. I have quickly learned to be independent. I can’t ask my brother or parents about the nuances of college, particularly about navigating finances. They couldn’t give me advice about how to get a loan, how to pay the said loan back, or how I should budget my spending as a student. 

I was also quite naive about the social aspects of college. I couldn’t ask my parents about Greek life, how college parties were back in their day, or even any life lessons they learned while at college. Being able to talk to your parents about these things may seem minuscule, but it is a privilege and it would mean everything to me if I could have that.

I began to doubt my abilities, too. Even after talking to everyone I knew in college and learning as much as I could from the internet, I often find myself questioning my major, if I should even be at college at all, or if my parents are proud of me. 

Of course, I know they are. I know they take pride in knowing I’m the first of my family to get a higher education, but the disconnect caused by being away at college doesn’t go unnoticed. 

So, I found myself falling into the same depressive habits I did when I was at my worst: my room would get so messy I couldn’t see the floor, I overslept, I skipped classes and I did the bare minimum to take care of myself. I was so frustrated and wondered why I felt so bad when nothing obvious was going wrong in my life.

I realized that this was because of how unprepared I felt. With no one in my family to relate to or to get advice from, I felt lonely and scared, which translated into these depressive symptoms.

With time, counseling, and medication, I’ve been able to overcome a lot of my past struggles and have become more confident in my capabilities.  

Now that I’m in my second semester, I’ve learned a lot. I get to be my own guide, I make my own mistakes and I learn my lessons.

I always looked up to my parents for their independence — it was something I aspired to. A lot of my depression came from feeling like I couldn’t do what they did at such a young age. I now know that they likely felt the same way I did— alone, scared, and unsure. If they survived it, so can I.

To know that I’ve gotten this far and knowing I now have the self-confidence to go further is my reminder that being a first-gen student is completely worth it.

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