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Jennifer Lewis's graduation cap, designed by her./Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lewis

First-Generation, That’s Me

By Sierra Kish

“It’s OK to feel pressure, it’s OK to feel scared, it’s OK if you fail a test or even a class. It is not OK to not try and get through these experiences because in the end, you realize the fear was worth it,” Jennifer Lewis said.

Jennifer Lewis is a recent graduate from Youngstown State University; she is a part of the first-generation community. YSU’s population is filled with many first-generation college students like Lewis, who are open to a whole new world. Students are looking for their place in the world and making it known.

Being a first-generation college student can lead to pressure, stress and getting people out of their comfort zones. Alicia Rodriguez, sophomore social work major, offers her experience as a first-generation student.

“It’s a lot of work, but I chose to do it for my future to be nowhere near my past,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez comes from a family that grew up in Youngstown. Generations before never considered college because of the money and the environment of their living situations.

The pressure and stress of being a first-generation college student can come from parents or family. The Los Angeles Times did an article in 2017 titled, “The stress and pressure of first-generation students” by Sandy Villarreal Arizaga.

“As first-generation students, we hear it so much from our parents and schools to the point that we’ve become immune to it,” she said.

However, some students are choosing to be a first-generation student because of their family in the future, not the past. Lewis is not only a first-generation student but a nontraditional student. Lewis was 39 years old when she graduated in 2018 from YSU with three children.

Lewis offers why motherhood made her want a degree even more.

“College was a whole new world for me, but I chose to go along with it to set an example for my children. I want them to have more than I did,” Lewis said.

In 2015, Linda Banks-Santilli wrote an article for The Washington Post, titled “Guilt is one of the biggest struggles first-generation college students face.”

In this article, Santilli focuses on why people choose to go to college as the first-generation and the stigma around it.

“There are first-generation students who view their status as a source of strength. It becomes their single most important motivator to earning their degree,” Santilli said.

In college, there can be many obstacles that test your strength. Matthew Cappitte, freshman social work major, said there is nothing quite like the college experience.

“I want to live in the dorms for the experience, but I live at home because taking care of the bills like that requires strength. I am working towards being stronger than the homes I’ve lived in as a child.” Cappitte said.

College is based on curriculum that can be tough; to be a full-time student at YSU, a student is required to take 12 credit hours each semester, four classes usually.

Rodriguez offers how she handles the workload of being a full-time student.

“It’s a lot of work, the stress and pressure get to me sometimes. It’s hard to talk to my family about it because they have never been through it, so they don’t believe my stress is real. I pull myself back together on the weekends with my friends and remind myself that I am more important than my degree,” Rodriguez said.

Being a first-generation student can be scary, but friendships can help. Cappitte said the friendships in college are forever.

“The people I have met here, I feel like I have known them my whole life,” Cappitte said.

For college students, it can be comfortable to surround yourself with people who understand you and are going through the same experience as being a first-generation student.

Rodriguez says the journey would be harder if she was alone, but she’s not.

“People are afraid to jump into college because they are scared of the unknown, but that’s what I come here for to know the unknown and finding some people that want to do the same,” Rodriguez said.

For some students being the first-generation is the best part of it. Lewis says there must be somebody that does it first, so why not her.

Jennifer Lewis’s graduation cap, designed by her./Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lewis

“First-generation, yep that’s me. Doesn’t that sound great?  I mean somebody had to do it right? I love being the first person to show my future family they can do it too,” Lewis said.

According to Santilli, rewarding moments are one of the benefits of being a first-generation college student.

“They often see college as a way to bring honor to their families,” Santilli said.

U.S. News wrote an article titled, “What to Know as a First-Generation College Student” by Josh Moody. According to Moody, some people are scared to enter college because they are scared to ask for help as a first-generation student.

“According to an NCES report from 2018, recent figures show a third of college students are first-generation, but they also balance other identities, Whitley says, with some being low-income and minorities as well,” Moody said.

Rodriguez is half African American and half Puerto Rican. She says her race was a factor in her decision to go to college.

“In school, I was always bullied so I didn’t want to go through that as an adult, but the people in college are different. They aren’t worried about you being black or having purple hair or having a lot of tattoos. The people are here for them and it’s a nice change, no judgment.” Rodriguez said.

Cappitte is a part of the LGBT community and says that college has helped him find himself.

“In high school, I was struggling to be OK with myself, but college has helped me with my journey. College is challenging as a first-generation student and as a member of the LGBT community, but the challenges make me that much better and ready,” Cappitte said.

In Santilli’s article for The Washington Post, she examines how colleges can help first-generation students and the result can be impactful.

“With the right support from institutions of higher education, first-generation students can earn their degree, reinvent themselves and reposition their families in positive ways for generations to come,” Santilli said.

Cappitte says that being a first-generation student helps you get ready for the real world.

“In the real world, there’s always going to be someone above you, somebody who is going to know more about what they are doing. Being at college makes me realize I don’t have to be better or smarter than everybody, I just have to show them what is special about me,” Cappitte said.

Matthew Cappitte (in yellow) with college friends./Photo courtesy of Matthew Cappitte

Lewis offers how her life has been impacted after graduating in 2018.

“I now work at a day care and the stress is still there. My job and my college experience have really pressured me, but people put a lot of pressure on rocks and they become diamonds, so bring it on,” Lewis said.