Lessons From a First-Gen, Working-Class Latinx Student

Alicia M. Reyes-Barriéntez shares five things she wishes she’d known when she left home to attend a predominantly white institution.

 

December 20, 2019

When I left home for college in the early 2000s, I was unaware of the struggles I’d face during my higher education career. I was particularly unaware of the discriminatory demands that predominantly white institutions place on students like me. Here is what I wish I’d known when I left home to attend a PWI as a first-gen, working-class Latinx student.

No. 1. That leaving my family to go to college would be a traumatic experience. For many Latinx (and other) students, going to college can be incredibly stressful, because we leave behind a strong familial network that has supported us our entire lives. I came from a traditional Mexican immigrant family, and I was in seventh grade when my older brother left for college for the first time. I couldn’t handle his departure — the day after he left, I locked myself in the bathroom to cry. Little did I know that leaving my entire family would be even more painful. I missed Mami and my sister so much that I cried every night for one year. I wanted to be home, where I felt I belonged.

Further, as studies suggest, I had been taught to put my family over myself. My parents taught loyalty to the family over independence. Research differentiates between the upbringings of middle-class and working-class students. Middle-class students “are typically exposed to and required to enact norms of independence, such as a focus on individual development, personal choice and self-expression prior to college.” Meanwhile, working-class students “are typically exposed to and required to enact norms of interdependence prior to college, such as adjusting to and responding to others’ needs and connecting to others.”

No. 2. How being working class and first gen would affect my college career. Being a first-generation student means that you can’t rely on family members to teach you about university life. You may lack cultural capital that facilitates college success. You have to be proactive and intentional about figuring out information that continuing-generation students arrive knowing or can access easily. For example, you may not be familiar with processes such as sorority or fraternity recruitment.

What’s more, as a working-class student, I could not rely on my family to send me money. Many low-income students even had to send money home to support their families. I had to work in college, which meant that I had less time to study. I also lacked access to resources like private tutoring. Such issues made college more demanding than it needed to be.

No. 3. That professors commonly employ academic jargon in the classroom. Many times, I couldn’t understand what I call “professorspeak.” My family spoke Spanish at home, and I was from the borderlands where Spanglish flourished alongside English. But the English spoken by professors was different and at times difficult to understand. Sometimes, when I almost didn’t understand a single word that the professor said, I would miss the substance of a lecture. I was constantly looking up the definition of words. After a few semesters, I finally got the hang of their elitist vernacular.

No. 4. How much institutional racism and classism shape every aspect of higher education. And that’s particularly the case at PWIs — universities created by (rich) white people for (rich) white people. Racist incidents against Latinx students and students of color on various campuses across the country are common. Further, I was not only nonwhite, but I was also working class. I decided against taking a job at a fast food restaurant at my university (even though I’d worked at the same chain in high school) because another student told me that I’d be socially shamed if I did.

Yet even in the mundane, I was reminded that I was working class. I mentioned to another student that I hated doing laundry every week. She told me she hadn’t done laundry in three months. I could not believe someone could have enough clothes to not have to do laundry for three whole months. Collectively, such incidents reminded me that, no matter what I did, I would never fit in. I was neither white nor rich.

No. 5. That I shouldn’t have been intimidated by privileged students who freely spoke up in class or have tried to assimilate in order to fit in. I often felt that I had nothing of value to contribute to class discussions. I doubted myself. As bell hooks notes, “Students from marginalized groups enter classrooms within institutions where their voices have been neither heard nor welcomed.” I didn’t apply to the university honors program because my SAT score was lower than the required threshold.

But I understand now that the SATs are discriminatory. I was, in fact, an excellent student: I graduated magna cum laude with a double major and a GPA of 3.93 and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. I was certainly qualified for my university’s honors program, but the institution’s discriminatory requirements denied me this opportunity.

And I wish I hadn’t tried to change myself so as to fit in. hooks argues, “It is still necessary for students to assimilate bourgeois values in order to be deemed acceptable.” I engaged in whitespeak, I tried to hide the fact that I was working class and I rarely, if ever, spoke Spanglish. I wish I hadn’t been ashamed of any part of me.

Toward the end of my college career, I began to understand that, to quote hooks again, “Racism, sexism, and class elitism shape the structure of classrooms, creating a lived reality of insider versus outsider that is predetermined, often in place before any class discussion begins.” Predominantly white institutions were not created for people of color to survive. Regardless, I did.

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