Issues · Law School · Legal Practice · Work Life Balance

Don’t Believe the Hype: Navigating Negative Emotions as a First Gen Student

I often mention how many Latinas going into the law are family leaders. Maybe you were the one that interpreted for your parents, or your siblings look to you for guidance/advice on big decisions, or maybe you’ve blazed an educational path for the rest of your family as a first gen student. This type of trailblazing status is a prominent feature in many Latina lawyers (and leaders) in our community. It is a powerful label—to be the trailblazer, the first—it paints an image of a driven, focused person. It’s a worthy title for so many of us. But it is also a difficult one. Being first can mean frustration, isolation, disconnect that our professional peers do not experience.  So today I want to talk about the emotional toll and dangers that comes with being a first gen student.

A big consequences that can happen with being the first in your family to move on to higher Ed is a disconnect that may pop up between you and your siblings and/or parents. We’ve talked about that disconnect before and how you vacillate between guilt and frustration. Parents who support your goals, but never really understand the work you’re putting in or the type of sacrifices you have to make. The same goes with your relationship with siblings that may have gone down a different path. I’m sure there can be resentment, sadness, and guilt that builds between you (that goes both ways) that impacts how you interact with one another.

And that guilt can feel ever-present. Guilt when you don’t score a high enough grade, or get the big job, or meet whatever other expectation you’ve set. The idea goes that our parents work so hard, tearing themselves down physically to give us opportunities for a better life. If we miss the mark, what was all their sacrifice worth? So you feel guilty even if your parents never say anything about your accomplishments. Or maybe you’re super successful, but you still got those student loans tho and can’t “pay back” the sacrifice they’ve made for you. It can be difficult to navigate family situations where people think that financially you got it like that, but in truth you have to budget and be careful like everyone else. All of this can lead to resentment or anxiety, which makes interacting with loved ones difficult.

But for me, the worst possible feeling that can fester in a first gen student is one of internalized racism. Maybe we’re in school and we start to believe the hype. We’re smart, we’re savvy, we made it out of poverty/beat the stats so why can’t everyone else? It can be easy (too easy) to believe we made it because we’re special, that we work harder, are smarter, etc etc. But there is a huge danger and an even greater character flaw when we refuse to acknowledge the systemic barriers that are imposed in our communities. “I did it, why can’t they” has so many complicated answers, and while I am intelligent and capable, I know that alone does not get me to law school. When we participate in PWI, we may friend people or join groups that make us feel special because we “made it,” but be cautious of the ones that say you made it because you’re not like the kids who stayed behind in your neighborhood. Because whether you want to admit it or not, you are like them. I am like them. There’s no shame in where we came from, we just found a different path.

And that’s really my main point. Being a trailblazer is hella cool, but your educational and professional goals should be yours. That’s the best way to mitigate guilt–don’t put your expectations on your family and don’t let them put theirs on you. Most importantly, be proud of your hard work while at the same time remaining wary of any pride that creates a wedge between you and your family/community.

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