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A Look Into The Life As A First Generation College Student


Manny headshotBy Emmanuel “Manny” Rodríguez (Willamette)

It’s difficult for me to answer the question: “Describe your journey as a first generation college student?” without first contemplating the equally imperative question: “WHY am I a first generation college student?” Moreover, I cannot separate the fact that I am a first generation college student from the other layers of my identity. I self-identify as a Chicano or Mexican American, low-income, a member of a mixed status family, and first generation college student among others. I consider all of these identity markers as inextricably linked and needless to say, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I belong in the group of historically underrepresented students at Willamette University and in the Greek System.

It didn’t take long hours of research to determine that I don’t have any history or generations of family before my parents and this reality although harsh, helps explain the fact that my parents don’t have the means of establishing high paying careers, or of investments, assets, etc. My parents dropped out of school at an early age because their families weren’t able to provide financially for their schooling and also because of their loyalty to their working class parents who expected them to fulfill domestic and labor-related tasks as a way to build character. Growing up, my father mainly provided for our family economically as my mother stayed home and cared for my sisters and I. My father was (and still is) a struggling but proud self-employed welder. After a while, my mother began working various jobs—in agriculture, as a care giver, and eventually in a grocery store for minimum wage. It fills me with joy to share that my parents both earned their GED’s in 2002 and 2011. Like other first generation students and close friends of mine maintain, I view my life in fragments of before and after college. Before college, I was convinced that education and social mobility were inevitable or natural steps in growing up.  It wasn’t until I entered college and engaged in dialogue with others and with the curriculum that I learned that there are social forces acting against my parents that deny them access to a higher education. The education I am receiving now is something my parents never dared to dream for themselves. I say this because just as my parents have navigated a social world vastly different from their own, I too, as a first generation college student at a private, Liberal Arts institution, have had to learn to adapt to a new social context.

I wasn’t prepared for the change and the culture shock of attending a private, elite university. Like several of my brothers have expressed, I initially felt reluctant about pursuing Greek Life. However, my reservations stemmed from feeling like dimensions of my identity were not represented. Unlike many middle-upper class students, I go home and see my parents, town, community, and way of life starkly opposed to that of the classroom. The lack of dual citizenship within the college setting and other reactions to culture clash within the academic arena for first generation college students from working class backgrounds such as myself are often conveyed through interactions with my PDT brothers. Do you ever have those moments when you don’t relate to the dominant white mainstream American culture? I certainly have. Multiple times. One of my brothers and I were once sitting in the bistro on our campus and he was sharing how his great-great grandfather was an inventor for a widely known product and how both of his parents pursued law. My jaw dropped and it reinforced the notion that I was and continue to feel socially inferior to a lot of my peers on campus with parents of highly educated backgrounds. The truth is, I had a different childhood than most of my peers and brothers, but that is not to dismiss the hardships that several of them have endured. I do wish people would be more aware of their privileges and recognize that not all students enter their post-secondary institution with the same, or even any cultural and social capital for that matter. One of my brothers mentioned he had visited 16 colleges with his family before deciding on Willamette. I applied for 6, but due to a lack of funds and transportation, I was only able to visit 2. I know there are others who have experienced this sense of limitation. As a first generation student, I know that I have networks of support at my university, including my Phi Delta Theta brotherhood, who may not always understand but accept me and remind me that I still have work to do, brothers (and sisters) to uplift and serve, places to see and a promising future to look forward to.

To be a first generation college student often means feeling like an imposter in the classroom. It also entails a sense of guilt for being one of the few who “make it out of the hood”. Nevertheless, I’m learning how to connect with my strength, explore other parts of my identity and learn/grow with others who can empathize with my story and struggles. No story resonates more fiercely with me than that of Richard Rodríguez’s autobiographical essay The Achievement of Desire in his narrative Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. I recommend this book, full of powerful insights, to anyone looking to become more tolerant. And although I recognize—and believe we ALL should recognize—that first generation college students are not a homogenous group, this book discusses several relevant struggles I’ve personally encountered and has helped me contextualize my own experience as a member of the Phi Delta Theta brotherhood who is determined to leave his mark.

Emmanuel “Manny” Rodríguez, is a sophomore at Willamette University, is majoring in Exercise Science and plans to pursue a career in occupational therapy.  Manny is also a sociology minor with special interest in systems of inequality, oppression and privilege. He was born in Pomona, CA but has lived on the Yakama Nation Reservation, in the town of Toppenish for most of his life. Aside from Phi Delta Theta, Manny is and has been involved in Alianza, Causa, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, MLK Celebration Committee, HeadBand (all male a capella group) and volunteers for Willamette Academy.