Graduation season is a time for lifting up the stories of first-generation college students who made it to the end, or next step, of their higher education journeys. As we wrap up graduation season, I’m giving the First Gen mic to Jessika Supreme, a recent graduate of Roxbury Community College is one of many at the college whose story is worth a highlight.
A large share of first-generation and low-income students are served by community colleges. These institutions are often more accessible to students who would otherwise face barriers to obtaining a degree and the work they do feels especially important this time of year.
Because there’s so much of the first-generation experience that is shared, stories of first-generation students who graduate from these institutions often have similarities, especially as it relates to family. Looking at these trends in our stories is a way to build community among first-gen students, but it can distract from just how inspiring our individual stories are.
During this year’s commencement, Jessika was one of the more than 150 RCC graduates who received a $1,000 graduation gift from the college’s keynote speaker, Celtics owner Rob Hale. The only condition of the gift was that the graduates keep $500 for themselves and use the rest of the money to pay it forward to someone who had helped them on their journey to graduation or a charity of their choice.
Jessika made a promise to her late mother that she would focus on furthering her education, and when her mother passed, it was her family that kept her motivated to keep that promise. Her portion of the gift went to her savings account and the rest was given to her sister, stepfather, and a close friend in need.
Jessika’s graduation is a personal accomplishment that’s been years in the making, but it’s also a story that’s closely bound to her family. She writes about how her mother’s lack of education drove her to pursue a degree and how she stayed motivated when death, immigration, and language barriers threatened to derail her dreams.
Are we a product of our environment or is it the other way around? Author W. Clement Stone believes people are a product of their environment and should choose the environment that will best develop them toward their objective. I am living proof that people can break away from the environment they were born into and find a new one that allows them to succeed.
Born in a single-family Haitian household, I promised myself that I would be everything that my mother could not accomplish. My mother became pregnant with my brother at the age of 16 and had me at 18. Becoming a mother at such a young age — in a society that looks down upon single motherhood — forced her to sacrifice her youth to educate and care for us. She traded her books for bottles of Similac formula. She could no longer make the mistakes teenagers do because she had two children who would pay the consequences.
She was a caring, affectionate, attentive, nurturing, and strict mother. Neither of us choose the environment we were born in, but we worked twice as hard to break the cycle. Before she passed, she used to tell me in our native Haitian Creole language, “Daughter, please do not commit the same mistake I did. I did not finish high school but I’m offering you a chance to do so. Make education a priority.”
I promised myself that I would not get pregnant before I have a degree. (Or, I should say, my mom made me promise not to.) She always wanted me to go further than she ever could, and I wanted to make her sacrifice count. I wanted to show my gratitude to my mother by making her proud of my accomplishments.
From an early age, I have always worked twice as hard as everyone else because I have a lot of dreams. My family moved from Haiti to the United States and although it was hard for me when I had to start all over again, I still did not let that stop me. After immigrating to a new country, culture, and society, I was determined more than ever to break away from my environment.
When we first arrived, my stepdad enrolled me in ESOL classes at Roxbury Community College so I could learn English, but I wanted to learn more than how to speak the language. When the opportunity was offered to me to pursue a degree in higher education, it was a sign that I could be what my mom always wanted me to be — an accomplished and educated young woman.
Soon after completing my ESOL classes, I enrolled at RCC to major in early childhood education. I chose to become a teacher because prior to coming to the U.S., I was an assistant preschool teacher in Haiti. Teaching and shaping young minds has been my passion. I used to help my mom babysit family members’ children, and that is how I have grown to love kids.
I thought that teaching would no longer be possible, but here I am breaking away from my environment by getting an associate degree as an early childhood educator, and working as a teacher again.
One of the reasons why I love being a teacher is because I can help children become more than what society and their environment may predict them to be. Just because my mom got pregnant at 16 and did not finish her studies, does not mean I was bound to do the same. My mom helped me to rise above her failures and shortcomings. She showed me that I could be everything I wanted to be no matter my background. I want to help young children understand that they can achieve everything they desire, and their environment doesn’t have to determine their future.
It’s up to us as individuals to choose whether we will let our circumstances define our life. My mom understood that she couldn’t fully break away from where she came from, but she fought hard to make sure that I knew that I have the power to do so.
So, I made education a priority in my life. Though my mother did not live to see me graduate from RCC, and further my education, I still carry every valuable life lesson she has taught me and has made them a foundation to build upon my successes.
Jessika Supreme is a recent graduate of Roxbury Community College. She will be pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education at UMass Boston in the fall.
Submit to First Gen!
If you’d like your work to be featured in a future newsletter, please send your pitches for personal essays, articles, and photojournalism about the first-generation college student experience. You don’t have to be first-gen to submit, but you do have to have a story to tell relating to the first-gen experience. The guidelines for pitching can be found here.
Thank you for reading! You can follow me on Twitter @zipporahosei and reach me for questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.