I’ve always said that if I wasn’t a writer, I’d be a teacher. As someone who thinks a lot about education and my own personal journey through K-12 and higher education, I know that I owe a lot to the teachers and educators who were there along the way. 

At the start of the new school year, I got the opportunity to interview an educator for a New York Times Magazine issue on lessons from the last two years of virtual school. Since then, I’ve given more thought to what drives a person to get back into the classroom and stay there after going through all the hurdles of getting their own degree. 

For the teachers out there who come from similar backgrounds as me, I wondered what it was like to re-enter school and navigate it from the opposite perspective. 

To learn more about this, I spoke with Sylvia Ibarra-Delgado, a first-generation college graduate who currently works as the director of a bilingual program for a school in Chicago. Before she took on her current role, Sylvia spent seven years teaching at schools in Milwaukee, San Antonio, and Chicago — all of them in environments that meant her classrooms were filled with students like younger self: first-generation and Spanish-speaking. 

“When I went to high school, my parents’ goal and my goal for myself was just simply to graduate high school because that was a step ahead than they had,” Sylvia told me. 

It wasn’t until her junior year when she took a college entrance exam and scored well that anyone started talking to her about college. It was by chance that she was directed to the college-bound path, but now that she’s an educator herself, she works to make sure other first-gen students aren’t stumbling blindly toward that goal. 

“That’s what’s led me to education and keeps me working with education,” she said. “To be able to build a trusting relationship with students and families, where they’re able to reach out for resources or for help. That’s definitely what keeps me going.”

We spoke about how her experiences shape her teaching style, why students benefit from having first-generation graduates as educators, and what the ongoing pandemic has been like for her students. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ZO: When did you know you wanted to go into teaching?

SID: In undergrad, I actually studied psychology. I thought that my way to help would be through mental health. I am very grateful for my background in psychology and I think it’s very pertinent for education. 

I studied abroad my senior year of college, in Argentina, and they actually do free college for everybody. That really just got me thinking, here we are in the U.S., where our education system has so many challenges. What impact can I have on our educational system? I came back and I was able to see what I could do. I got my master’s in bilingual education and that’s when I started teaching. 

ZO: I wanted to talk to you because you are a first-generation graduate who went back into the classroom. What was it like to re-enter that space after having gone through the full experience of being first-gen?

SID: I do think being first-gen and being a native Spanish speaker has helped me build relationships with my students. Time and time again, teachers will tell you your leverage point with children is building relationships. They have to be able to trust you, they have to be able to feel safe in your classroom, and then we can start talking about academics.

Something that comes to mind too is an out-of-the-classroom, life example. If I need advice on creating a retirement plan, I have to seek out an expert. It’s not a conversation that I can have with my parents. And it’s just because they don’t know. You can apply that situation to so many other life examples even when you’re done with school. 

This happens a lot with first-generation students where there are certain conversations that I also don’t want to bring to them. I don’t want my parents to feel incompetent because I can’t come to them for certain things. I don’t think that other people necessarily have that experience. You struggle but you just don’t know that you’re not supposed to struggle. 

ZO: In the years that you were in the classroom as a teacher, do you feel like being first-gen affected the way you approached your students?

SID: I had my own experience learning English and [having] a family who didn’t necessarily challenge the authority of teachers. I reflect back now on certain conversations, like if my mom would have simply asked a teacher for reasoning as to why they couldn’t enroll me in the honors program. She just didn’t know any better. It’s not her fault and I absolutely do not hold that against her, but as I serve students, as I serve families, I have that in the back of my head. What opportunities am I creating for the child and what barriers are there that they may not even know about? 

That was our situation where we didn’t know that we could challenge. We didn’t know that we could ask follow-up questions. It was just, this is a person of authority we accept it and we move on. 

My hope and my push is to create and to open more doors for others. Obviously, I want college to be an option for all our students, but if financially or for whatever reason, that may not be an option then ensuring that when they graduate high school, they can still have a plan that develops a career for them.

ZO: Why is important for students to have teachers who have the background of being first-gen, whether they’re going to be a first-generation college student themselves or not?

SID: It’s happened where a family will call and say [a student] is not doing their homework, they’re not listening to me. You can sit down with them and have a one-on-one conversation. Oftentimes, I will say I’m sure your parents have told you this and because I’ve had that shared experience with them, it resonates with them. They give me a look of like, “how did you know?” I can understand what their lived experience is. It’s your middle school years where you think the world’ is out to get you and having parents who don’t necessarily know how to navigate makes it harder.

Understanding what the child is going through, while also being able to support the family so that they don’t feel like they have to complete a high school application by themselves or sign off on something that they may not necessarily understand can have a huge impact. 

ZO: Obviously, in the last year and a half schools have been so impacted by the pandemic. How have you seen COVID affect your first-gen and bilingual students?

SID: In this year and a half, families have seen anything and everything. So many people have experienced COVID and its side effects. I think this year and a half has changed for the positive families’ mindsets about counseling, but unfortunately, it’s been [because] they’ve seen their child go through depressive episodes.

If we go back, February 2020, I would’ve referred students for counseling. These are first-gen students, these are families who in their native countries, counseling and therapy have a stigma. It still has a stigma in the U.S. So I think probably in 2020 I would have to frame it very intentionally because a lot of families were hesitant to seek out those services. 

Ask First Gen

In this section, I answer questions submitted by readers on past issues, current events, and all things first-generation college student related. Do you have a question or topic you want me to cover? Submit your own question here and it may be featured in a future newsletter. 

Q: What are some other movies that highlight first-generation students?

A: As someone who watches a lot of television — and particularly a lot of teen dramas — I was surprised to realize how difficult it was thinking of movies and television, let alone characters, where the first-generation student experience is portrayed. Given that in this country, a third of all college students are first-gen, you’d think there’d be more media representation for them. 

Instead, we’ve got an abundance of stories about high school students competing to get into Ivy League schools.

Why Does Every Teen in Every Movie Want to Go to Yale?
Why Does Every Teen in Every Movie Want to Go to Yale?www.vulture.com
Come fall, in the “Booksmart”-verse, Molly is going Yale. So is her “Booksmart” frenemy, the hot mean girl AAA. Noah Centineo dreamed about Yale in “The Perfect Date,” after Saoirse Ronan aspired to attend the school two years prior in “Lady Bird.”

Still, there are some examples like “In the Heights,” which I wrote about over the summer, that do highlight first-generation students. Not all of them have that experience so central to the plot, but plenty do justice to the ways having that background shapes a person’s character without falling into the usual tropes. 

Here’s a short list of my favorite movies/television and characters that do this well:

  • Jane the Virgin (Jane and Xiomara Villanueva)
  • Saved by the Bell (Kelly Kapowski) *this one was a rerun favorite of mine growing up
  • Shameless (Phillip Gallagher)
  • On My Block (Monse)

I would also recommend checking out First Gen and Juice, on Twitter and/or Instagram for more recommendations. It’s run by La’Tonya Rease Miles, the dean of student affairs at UCLA, and she consistently highlights the first-gen experience on screen. 

Do you have a question about student loans, internships, work-study, or anything else first-gen related? Ask those questions here!

Thank you for reading! You can follow me on Twitter @zipporahosei and reach me for questions and comments at zipporahosei@gmail.com.

A journalist and first-generation college student originally from Yonkers, N.Y., Zipporah is in her last year at Northeastern University. She has reported for The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Higher Education,...