Finding My Voice as a Female First-Generation Student

My journey as a female first-gen student 

I’m proud to be a first-generation female graduate because my experiences have led to the strengths I have today. I had many feelings and past experiences that followed me throughout undergrad school, including cultural expectations. But I had no idea they would have an impact on my higher education path—and lead me to helping other Latinas make the successful transition to college.

Unlearning “staying quiet”

A common experience that I and many other Latinas have had is the advice, "calladita te vez mas bonita,” which translates to “staying quiet looks better on you.” Whenever I heard this growing up, it was because my opinions were out of the cultural norm, and I needed to keep the peace in different settings. It was better for me to stay quiet, even if something was bothering me.

As a young Mexican-American girl who was trying to discover herself but felt like she couldn’t, I would watch the male figures within my family. They were given the unspoken permission of being able to share, do, and act in ways that I was told I couldn’t. 

Challenges as a first-generation college student

Navigating college as a first-generation student, I faced unique challenges—while simultaneously feeling proud that I was studying to earn my degree to give my family and me a brighter future.

I was 18 when I started community college. I was no longer a little girl, but I still carried “calladita te vez mas bonita” into my college classes. If I had questions during class because I didn’t understand something, I wouldn’t ask. If I was working on a group project, I wouldn’t share my opinions or ideas if they didn’t align with the male partner I was paired with. If I wanted to attend one of my male professor’s graduate student office hours, I would have to remind myself, “he’s here to help students and it’s okay if I have questions.”

I did not have any males tell me I couldn’t speak up; in fact, they encouraged me to ask for help so I could do well in college. Looking back, I remember the curiosity I had regarding the confidence I’d see from my male peers who were also first-generation students. I wanted to have that confidence too. This idea of “calladita te vez mas bonita'' was something I had to consciously unlearn as I continued to navigate my higher education path as a first-generation female student. 

Finally gaining confidence 

Being first-generation from a low-income/working class background, I faced obstacles constantly. My lack of college readiness, financial challenges, limited family support, and low self-esteem were limiting my ability to grow academically.

Given these challenges, there were a few things that helped me become more confident in myself and my academics:

  • I connected with other first-generation female students in my program
  • I had a female mentor who was also first-generation
  • I practiced self-affirmations on a daily basis

Through these tactics I started to ask more questions in class, attend office hours, and not feel so anxious. While learning to give myself grace, I was also unlearning negative habits so I could become a better version of myself.

Using my strengths to help others

I had a lot of unlearning and discovering to do both culturally and academically. Throughout this journey I have learned to use my strengths as a Latina woman to make me a resilient leader for other first-generation students who can relate to my experiences. 

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