Feeling Worlds Away from Your Parents As a First-Gen Grad

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Earlier this week, I started my post-grad fellowship at ProPublica. An hour before I logged on for my first day, I got a call from my mom who was calling to wish me luck and give me the same advice on professionalism she’s given me since I got my first job at fifteen.

Because of the coronavirus, I’ll be working remotely for the foreseeable future, but as an essential worker, my mom doesn’t have that luxury. When she called me that morning, I had just rolled out of bed and was settling into the couch to start my workday. She was coming off the night shift at a nursing home. Before we hung up, she congratulated me again on the job and the degree that led up to it, and it was hard not to think about how I was starting down a career path very different from hers.

When I first started this newsletter, I got a lot of suggestions from first-gen students and grads about what they’d like to see me write about. One of the first came from Texas Public Radio reporter María Méndez, who brought up an aspect of the first-gen experience that I hadn’t yet given much thought: how we relate to our parents once college is over.

Starkly different career paths

Fewer Americans earn more than their parents, but for the most part, people don’t move too drastically up and down the social ladder. If you start from the bottom, it’s hard to claw your way up, and if you’re sitting up higher, you’ve got some cushion to protect you from falling down. A big part of that cushion is education — it affords you the access and the means to maintain the lifestyle you grew up having.

Getting a degree is also what helps a lot of people work their way up. People whose parents didn’t go to college are understandably less likely to go themselves, but for those that do, there’s a great chance that they’ll out-earn their parents. After all, the median weekly salary for someone with a Bachelor’s degree is almost double that of someone without a high school diploma. It’s why so many parents without a degree emphasize so heavily to their kids the importance of finishing college, but it’s also why accomplishing the goal can sometimes bring new challenges to our already complicated relationships.

Finishing college is a great personal accomplishment, but there’s no way around the fact that crossing that finish line will make you feel separate from your family in some ways. For me, it largely comes back to money. The salary for my entry-level fellowship is more money than my mom’s yearly income as an LPN, and I won’t even be using it to support a household. My mom sees it as a point of pride — the American dream realized — but it’s hard not to see a sadness in that.

There’s also the way higher education warps your identity and forces you to adapt and conform in order to survive it. As a first-gen student, you learn quickly to codeswitch in order to fit into academic and white-collar spaces. You learn new mannerisms and social cues. During college, your world opens up to new ideas both in and out of the classroom, so while your parents think they sent you to school to build the skills you need to get a job, suddenly you’re coming home talking about intersectionality and semiotics. None of this necessarily has to be a bad thing, but it inevitably changes the way you relate to the people you know at home.

Your classmates and fellow grads may be the fourth person in their family to get a business degree, but as a first-gen student, you’re likely looking for jobs your parents wouldn’t have access to. Like me, you may enter a field your family doesn’t fully understand.

More than once a family member has told me they can’t wait to see me on the evening news because when they hear journalism and think CNN or ABC7 Eyewitness News. I’m not fully convinced my mom knows exactly what it is I want to do, aside from “write.” She didn’t spend four years learning the nuances of newspaper writing, and research reporting, and audience engagement, and podcasting, and everything in between. What she knows is that however different the path ahead of me may be from hers, I’m still her daughter.

📚Good reads:

Thanks for reading,

Zipporah

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