College is a time filled with meeting new people, going to classes you (hopefully) enjoy and learning to grow and transition into adulthood. However, college is not always made with everyone in mind. Although USC is a predominantly white institution (PWI), there is a significant population of first-generation American students. According to Collins Dictionary, first-generation Americans would be described as citizens of the US, “whose parents had immigrated into [the] country.”
First-generation Americans may face unique challenges as they embark on their college journey. If students' parents didn’t go to college in America–or didn’t go to college at all–they may face difficulties in transitioning to university and getting access to the resources they need to be successful.
How have first-generation Americans learned to navigate college and make a home for themselves here? Four students have shared their perspectives on being at USC, from concerns regarding college, to conversations with parents to finding access to resources and a community at the university.
College can be intimidating, especially if students don’t have a frame of reference for what the experience can be like in America. On top of this, the media often distorts the idea of university life, reducing it to heavy drinking and reckless behavior. Although these can lead to various concerns about coming to college, students often realize different purposes that motivate them to attend university.
Ivy Lu, a Chinese-American senior double majoring in international business and finance, explains how her university experience has been more “cultural and educational.”
“The media portrayal of college here, especially at SEC schools, whether it's through movies or Barstool accounts—I don't really prioritize that in my college experience,” Lu says. “ [My parents] had that trust in me, but they were still wary that I was going to this big SEC school where drinking and that type of culture was very different from what I grew up in.”
Lu explains that she was raised in a rural area of upstate South Carolina, where she was the only East Asian student in her classes. “You feel less connected to that cultural identity,” Lu says. “I almost feel like I had to ‘mask’ it or ignore it for the most part.”
As a result, Lu specifically chose USC to reconnect with her culture through studying abroad in the International Business and Chinese Enterprise (IBCE) program, where students travel to Hong Kong, China. This has also allowed her to become closer to the other students in her cohort.
“We are all close friends, and we always have dinners. We always talk with each other. They’ve definitely been a community for me." Lu describes how she is roommates with one of her cohort-mates, with whom she has been friends with since freshman year. "Just having at least one or two people you can be really close with has made a lot of difference.” Lu is also part of the Korean International Student Association on campus, where she says she enjoys having a diverse group of people to go to events with.
In relation to academics, Lu explains that her parents always saw education as a form of social mobility, an idea that was quickly instilled in her as well.
“[My parents] grew up in a contentious time [in China], right after the counterculture and Communist Revolution. My mom was educated, and she became a teacher," Lu explains. "She came to America later on and decided to get an associate degree because she really values education."
"My dad, he actually had a harder time pursuing education when he was younger…He didn’t even get to go to high school because he had to work and support his family.” As one of two male siblings in a family of seven, Lu's father was given more responsibility and had to complete strenuous manual labor, the physical pain and effects of which he can still feel today. “He just didn't have the chance or luxury to have gone to any high school or college. I’d say he really regrets that because he really values education, and so he really wanted me and my sister to prioritize our studies and our schooling."
Lu has always enjoyed learning, and her parents fostered this curiosity for education at an early age by providing her with tutors and workbooks. On top of this, they pushed her to be more independent and confident in herself, while encouraging her to pursue the path she loves most. Once she graduates, Lu will be the first person in her family to hold a bachelor’s degree in America.
Lu reflects that she is thankful for the emphasis on education she had as a child, and the ability to learn more about what she loves. Even now, she often seeks the advice of her parents, especially her father, when navigating academic resources and subjects in college.
“Even though he didn’t have a great educational background, [my dad] absorbed every form of media possible when he came to America. He didn’t even know the language. He started with his little Walkman, he talks about it all the time. Learning how to speak the language, he worked his way up.” Lu explains that her father, who became the manager of a restaurant chain, always provides her with hard-earned lessons and advice he realized throughout his career that he wants to ensure his daughter does not need to learn in the same way.
Just because you don’t go to college does not mean you can’t get knowledge in other ways. Indeed, Lu’s father shows that education comes in all forms, and people find many ways to grow.
As for Lu, she is grateful for the guidance her parents have given her, and she is excited to pay it forward to her younger sister.
“A lot of people were told by their siblings or someone who was already in college [about financial resources], and I didn’t have that person; I was just walking blindly and figuring out things as I went. Now that I have this background, I’m so glad I can impart it onto my sister.”
Lu’s story is one of connection–with her culture, her family and the people she has found at USC. Her path to education and being true to herself has allowed her to become more confident and continuously, “enjoy the process of learning.”
Edgar Lemus Rivera
While some may choose to attend college to better connect with parts of their identity, other students come more concerned about the diversity on campus. Edgar Lemus Rivera, a junior pre-med student who is Guatemalan-American, explains his and his parents’ worries about moving far away from home.
“It was a very tight-knit environment growing up, especially because my parents were undocumented for most of my early life. We were very scared of outsiders and maybe getting alerted and deported. And so me leaving and going so far for college was not easy on them,” Lemus Rivera says. “I was concerned going from New Jersey–where there is such a large Hispanic population, there's a lot of diversity–and then coming to the South, which is stereotypically more racist.”
According to the USC Demographics page, our college only has a 4 percent Hispanic population. Although there are groups on campus for Hispanic students, such a low number of students can make it difficult to feel like one belongs. Lemus Rivera explains that it's hard not seeing people like himself on campus.
Not everyone may see college as an essential part of success. Lemus Rivera also explains how his father saw attending university as a luxury rather than a necessity. “Because [my parents] are more blue-collar workers, they see going to college as [being] easy. ‘You're just studying. It’s not real work,’ is what they would think.”
In general, Lemus Rivera says that his parents are almost removed from his life; he may talk to them about day-to-day things, but he does not ask them too many questions.
“When you grow up with immigrant parents, you have to be independent and fend for yourself a little bit,” Lemus Rivera explains. “[My parents] trust me enough and know that I can survive on my own that they don’t really ask too many questions. They take what I tell them at face value. It’s nice that they’re not overbearing, but sometimes it can feel like they don’t care.”
These factors combined with the fact that Lemus Rivera is a first-generation college student also led to worries about his academic college experience. Lemus Rivera states, “I was frightened that I wouldn’t be able to do it because I'm not only going to college; I'm also hopefully going to go to medical school. I had no idea what that looked like. I had no one else to guide me or orient me.”
However, Lemus Rivera explains that he is glad to be able to move away from college in order to experience a different way of life. “For me, it was very liberating not having my parents over me. It was really eye-opening coming to college because I got to ‘live like an American.’” He explains that attending university has allowed him to realize differences in his upbringing and learn more about how he wants to live his life. In doing so, he has also been able to find a community in South Carolina.
Lemus Rivera volunteers twice a week at the Good Samaritan clinic, which provides free healthcare to low-income patients in Columbia. “[Volunteering] made me realize how big of a Hispanic community there actually is in Columbia. One of the things I would complain about a lot when I got here is that I had no one to speak Spanish to," Lemus Rivera says. "I am an interpreter, so I speak it pretty frequently now.” Additionally, Lemus Rivera’s University 101 professor and pre-medical organization have guided him in transitioning to university and continuing to be involved on campus.
Now that he is in college, Lemus Rivera realizes the difficulties his parents went through, which motivates him to do better. He says that his parents now better appreciate the work he does in university, and he is glad he can implement the abilities he learned when he lived with his parents.
“I grew up working in [my parents’] restaurants. At age 15 I was working 70-hour weeks, and it was manual labor,” Lemus Rivera explains. “I was able to take some of the skills and some of the background from growing up in an immigrant household and working at my parents’ restaurant and apply those skills.”
Lemus Rivera’s experiences with the community he has left behind and the one he has found at USC show the different views people may have on education, and how you can relate your past experiences to your present.
For Jazmine Lara, a first-generation college student whose parents are from Mexico, college had felt inaccessible to her since high school.
“I genuinely felt like college wasn’t for me because I went to a really smart, rich, predominantly white high school." While her peers were receiving college acceptance letters out of state, Lara knew she would want to stay in South Carolina. Some looked down on her decision, saying that she would not receive as good of an education. "And I'm like, can I really do this college stuff?”
Lara explains that in high school she was originally on the nursing track and had planned to go to school for two years to get her nursing degree. However, after realizing she no longer wanted to go into healthcare, Lara really wanted to attend USC. “I knew I could do better in a four-year [university] than a two-year [school] doing a career I didn’t want to do anymore.”
Even still, the cost of tuition is exorbitant and for Lara’s family it was a steep price to pay for an education. “That was the most tense my relationship has ever been with my parents," she says. "[USC] is a public four-year university, and we can't afford it compared to a regular two-year.”
Eventually, Lara was able to get the funding she needed through FAFSA and USC to attend university. She attributes TRIO to a lot of the guidance she’s received while in college regarding finding resources.
“I have friends that are not in the program, and they have no idea that those resources are available to them. Just having an organization like TRIO and OSP, they really did help me succeed better in college. Without them, I would be kind of lost.”
Lara has since been majoring in Political Science with a minor in Education, where she has found deeper passions. In addition, her relationship with her parents is better now, and she calls her mother from time to time to talk. Lara may tell her mother about how she’s rushing again or applying for a new internship, but “the thing is, she doesn’t understand what I’m doing. So she's like, 'Oh that's cool.' And it's kinda hard because I have no idea how to explain it to her.”
This, along with false starts in friendships, made Lara’s transition to college more difficult and isolating.
Lara explains her frustrations at the lack of understanding of the difficulties of first-generation students. “I just want people to realize that it’s hard being a first-gen student on this campus, especially since you have a huge population that comes from families that were fortunate enough to go to college and able to help their kids navigate through stuff, like even something simple like navigating through the FAFSA."
Brandi Anderson, a graduate student at USC working on a project regarding first-generation students and social mobility, similarly explains the alienation students may feel in using resources on campus, which subsequently prevents many from accessing the help they may need. “I do hear a lot of students say that they know the Student Success Center and different resources on campus exist, but then I'll ask them, have they ever used it, and they'll say, ‘No, I've never really used it’ or, ‘I’m too busy’ and things like that.” Anderson has found that even if students may have resources at the institution they attend, they may be discouraged from using them. This may be compounded if the student is in a minority group, where they already feel “different” from the rest of the student body and may not want to access resources that would "prevent" them from succeeding on their own.
Even as Lara has found her time at USC to have its ups and downs, a conversation on the phone with her mother prior to her major change allowed her to realize her parents' views on her education.
"She basically told me, ‘If you don’t like [nursing], I understand you want a good job for yourself and stuff like that. But you have to realize no matter what you do you're going to end up better than me or your dad financial-wise.' Like that whole entire whole thing of like, where you're able to pull yourself out of poverty regardless of any type of degree you get because you're gonna end up getting a better job than [your] parents...Her end goal is just for me to get an education and make a life here in America.”
Like Lu’s parents, Lara’s parents also see her education as a form of social mobility, a way for her to gain a better education for herself. Although Lara always knew that her parents wanted her to pursue college, her story reveals the physical and emotional costs that many first-generation students must consider when preparing to attend university.
Each country has its own system of higher education. Parents coming to America with this different set of knowledge can provide first-generation American students with difficulties in knowing what the collegiate system is like in the US. David Mwakapusya, a freshman integrative information technology major whose parents are from Tanzania, explains that his father did not graduate from university in America, leading him to have a different perspective on post-secondary institutions. However, Mwakapusya’s father still helped him consider all of his options as he navigated which university he wanted to attend.
“I’ve been prepared for college since I was born, honestly. Like, that's the only thing you hear about in my house,” Mwakapusya said. “It’s like how some person trains their kid to be the next NFL athlete or something; my dad’s been training me to be a scholar. But I wasn’t always in love with that like the way he wanted me to.”
Mwakapusya explains how he can now understand where his parents were coming from, and how they were trying to prepare him for the real world.
“If you had told me this a year ago, thinking that, 'David, you would appreciate mom and dad this much, or you would take all of this back-talking and disrespect back,' I wouldn't have believed you. I would have turned a cheek.”
In his time away from college Mwakapusya has found a new maturity in his and his parent’s relationship. They trust him more now than when he was at home, and he feels that he can better hold conversations with them. In addition, he has felt that he has been more in tune with his “mellow demeanor,” allowing him to act more responsibly in college.
Some of Mwakapusya’s motivations to study in college come from a sense of pride in himself and his family. “There’s this chip on my shoulder, too, just considering the fact that not a lot of people have my background. They can’t say that, 'Yeah, I've got family in the States but I also have a bigger family in Tanzania that I have to work harder for, I guess.'”
When asked about financial resources, Mwakapusya explains he had the most difficulty in informing his parents about financial aid, including the FAFSA.
“Applying for the FAFSA was a trip because my parents, they don’t really understand how the financial aid system works. So it was kinda hard to really sit my parents down and explain to them…It all worked out in the end. It was just most definitely a learning curve for everybody.”
This meant Mwakapusya had to find other ways to learn about financial aid as well. He had a lot of help from his high school counselors, whom he calls his “school moms.” Mwakapusya’s counselors were able to connect him to the correct resources and aid in order for him to better navigate the financial aspect of college.
In addition, Mwakapusya has found this support system has followed him into college. One of his previous counselors' son is a graduate student at USC, allowing Mwakapusya to have more guidance as he navigates his first year. “The support system I had from back home put me in touch with connections here that allowed me to feel the same at home.” Students' networks can be extensive, and first-generation Americans often find their guidance from the community they’ve built around them.
Ultimately, Mwakapusya offers the following encouragement for anyone with immigrant parents having a difficult time with communication: it gets better, sometimes.
“My parents, in my perspective, have the most open and knowledgeable mind ever. It’s just that they don’t know how to say it the right way. And it doesn't sit right sometimes,” he says. “They’ve got their own culture. I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. It’s not the best place to raise a kid. I've got Tanzanian parents who want me to have a lifestyle where it's not like the one where I go to school at or I see everyday."
"It gets better, though. So just keep your head up, in a sense. Just keep working, and it works out.”
All of these students came to USC with understandable concerns. Fears surrounding college culture, belonging and cost are not uncommon and reflect how often universities may not take into account the worries of its students, especially those from minority groups. On top of this, parents may not see eye-to-eye with their children, and students need to learn to navigate the ebb and flow of their parental relationships. Even as these students faced various issues with transitioning to college, they were able to find what they loved and how they wanted to grow at USC. They continued to learn more about their parents' perspectives and often worked with them in different ways to find common ground. In doing so, these individuals have ultimately been able to shape their own college experience.