The first summer home from college can be just as foreign an experience to first-generation students as the first semester. Home should be a welcoming reprieve from navigating new academic environments, but after months away, home can also feel like a complicated landscape.
It’s rare that anyone goes away for school and returns unchanged — for better, or for worse — and it can be difficult to know if the identity you’re building at college can fit well with the one you’ve always had.
For Vanessa, this week’s contributor, it was during her return home during breaks in college that she really reflected on her experience as a first-generation college student. During those breaks, she returned home to a family that still loved her but now understood her a little less.
Rather than allow her college experience to drive a wedge between herself and her family, Vanessa learned how to manage the ways college was changing her relationship with her parents and learned three helpful tools to keep herself, and other first-generation college students, sane.
How to survive your family: A first-gen guide
For students, holidays can be viewed as checkpoints within a semester. These times for celebration and pause offer a break from our sometimes soul-crushing routines of going to class, studying, and attending meetings — all while running on about five hours of sleep. Students often look forward to these breaks for the chances they provide to be around family, hometown friends, and warm, home-cooked meals.
For first-generation college students, however, the undergraduate experience tends to depart from the norm, and breaks in the semester are one area where that can be seen. While many of my friends joyfully anticipate their trips back home, this isn’t really always the case for me. I love the memories and people that await me there, but my actual presence in that space causes my body to tense up rather than relax. When the holidays arrive, I tend to feel like I’m entering the headquarters of TMZ rather than the cozy home I grew up in.
As I step through the door, a bombardment of questions fly my way: “What’s your specialty going to be? Have you found a part-time job? Med school? Are your grades going to be good enough?” Inevitably, those questions are followed by comments like, “Well, maybe you should be more organized” or “Those classes shouldn’t be too difficult.”
I tried to manage the feelings these interactions evoked, but my anxiety only seemed to skyrocket. While my peers arrived back at campus rejuvenated and refocused, I always felt exhausted, as if I’d just completed military boot camp, licking my wounds and expected to get right back to work.
I’m not saying the mental battles faced by first-gen students aren’t shared by other groups on campus, but, first-generation college students often have to deal with the usual pressures of college without having family who understands those pressures, and in some cases, are outright dismissive. Where I see the largest void is in the way that we experience these things.
The lack of understanding that can occur between first-gen students and their families can make this transitional moment into adulthood seem a bit muted, unintentionally diminishing both the hardships and accomplishments of students. If you’re a first-generation college student dealing with similar problems, I’m here to provide a few tips on how to avoid a disconnected relationship with your family as you forge ahead as a college student, and how to repair any damage that may have already been done.
Communicate your feelings
When people ask, “How’s it going?”, the quick answer of “fine” or “I’m good” may seem like a sufficient response. However, its broad and varying definition fails to convey the highs, lows and in-betweens that we as first-gens experience. Whether it’s because we doubt our loved ones will fully understand or because we don’t see the events as noteworthy ourselves, we sell our relationships short by sweeping the happenings of our lives beneath a single-phrase response. Opening up is probably one of the most difficult, yet important, steps to adding depth to a relationship. Just thinking about the action can cause your throat to tighten, your mouth too dry, and your clothes to all of a sudden feel uncomfortable.
For me, the anxiety I felt seemed like something that should be left as thoughts in my head before bed rather than something conveyed aloud to my family. It’s not even that I didn’t trust them or because I’d thought they would treat me differently. What really kept me from opening up was the fear of placing an additional burden upon them. I didn’t want to worry them or run the possibility of hurting their feelings. Explaining to your parents that their concerns and worries about your future are adding another unwanted layer of stress to your life can seem kind of hurtful. However, sitting down and coming to a common understanding can provide both reliefs to you and your family. Talking it through can only make a relationship stronger because, let’s be honest, if mind-reading was a thing, we wouldn’t need communication.
Keep them informed about the good and bad in your life. (But maybe not the ugly… like hangovers or kissing a stranger)
Keeping your family informed about your accomplishments and downfalls can allow them to be both a supportive outlet for you and enable them to be more empathetic to the struggles of getting up for an 8 a.m. (or not). I ended the fall semester of my sophomore year with all A’s. I neglected to tell my family about this, not thinking anything of my grades while I was home for break.
I came down the stairs one day to find my dad wearing a face of disgust (almost like Chris Rock’s after Will gave him that high five). Waving a piece of paper in front of him, he said, “So you weren’t going to tell me about this?” I quivered in fear, thinking that he’d received an EZ Pass ticket as a result of my flying through the toll booths on I-95, but was shocked to realize that it was a printout of my grades from the semester.
I learned his disappointment had come from my failure to share my achievement with him. I had unknowingly robbed him of a praiseworthy moment that could have brought him immense joy. All that to say, give your parents and family the opportunity to celebrate and support you.
Yes, it’s hard being empathetic when you’re studying for two exams, writing two papers, have lab in 5 minutes, and just received a call from your mom telling you to apply for a scholarship she just found. Just take a minute to breathe, reflect, and realize that your parents never had the college experience. They don’t know how long it takes to write a research paper or the difficulty of the other tasks you need to juggle throughout your day.
We don’t need to wonder where they come up with the questions they ask or the comments they project. The only thing we need to realize is that all the sacrifice and commitment they put into sending us to school is because they love, care, and always want the best for us. whether or not we agree on what’s best is something else entirely.
My four years of experience showed me how being communicative, informative, and empathetic can develop and foster an important, supportive relationship between first-gen students like yourself and your family. So, smile, laugh, and keep your head up.
Vanessa Copes studied a biology and Spanish. In the fall, she will begin medical school at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Thank you for reading! You can follow me on Twitter @zipporahosei and reach me for questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.