Transitions, Too Story – Jennifer Herrera

Looking back on my entire education, I see that I faced many challenges as a low-income, first-generation student. I say “looking back”, because at the time, I didn’t realize the extent to which my experiences differed from others’. Neither of my parents earned college degrees and knew how this affected their earning potential. As a result, it was made clear to me that I would absolutely be going to college and earning a degree, in any subject. It was simply expected. With my family’s finances, it was also made clear to me that I would need to somehow pay for school myself, either through grants, scholarships, or work study. I think this forced me to push myself much harder academically, even as early as elementary school. By the time I was in high school, I was under even more pressure to do well in school. And yet, I didn’t always have the tools I needed. As the oldest of 4 children by several years, there were several times I was made to stay home and miss school in order baby-sit a sick sibling while both my parents worked. I also missed many school field trips because we couldn’t afford the fees. When I did finally go away to college I took on nearly the entire burden of paying for it. I worked several jobs over those 4 years. As a senior I worked 40 hours a week at 3 different jobs. By the time I graduated, I was tens of thousands of dollars in debt, but I hadn’t really given much thought to how that might affect my future because as far as I was concerned, the degree was the only thing that mattered.

Being a first-generation student also affected me in unforeseen ways. I’m sure my parents felt that they were helping me immensely by pushing me to do well in school from a very young age. However, this meant that by the time I was in high school I was doing classwork that my parents didn’t understand and they couldn’t help me with it. This forced me to be very self-sufficient, which was a good thing at the time. It’s easy to be self-sufficient when the work isn’t too challenging. However, this also meant that I didn’t know how to ask for help, or work in groups when the work got harder in college. I struggled academically those first couple of years before I learned how to ask my classmates or TAs for help. I NEVER asked my professors for help directly because as a student at a prestigious college, I assumed that the professors didn’t have time for someone like me. I see now that my parents’ lack of college experience hurt me there too, because my first suggestion to my own sons is always, “have you gone to talk to your teacher about this?”

Looking back on those years I think I have a few pieces of advice I’d like to pass on:

– Don’t be afraid to ask for help, either when it comes to academics or how to do laundry or how to stick to a budget. Professors, administrators and many others on campus are here to help. Know where to go if there is anything you need.

– Keep in mind that college is more of an experience than a destination. My parents didn’t realize that there was so much more to college than just the classes and the grades and made me feel guilty about every minute I spent away from my work. But you’re here to do so much more than just go to class and graduate. Join clubs, explore the city (especially if you aren’t from the area), and take advantage of everything there is to do in the Hudson Valley. Hiking is nearly free and you don’t know where you may end up when you leave college, so try something new.

– Realize that no matter what your background is, everyone has challenges in college. It’s easy to assume that people who don’t share your background somehow have it easier, whether it is financially or academically or socially, but everyone has their own challenges.

– Beware of self-doubt. After getting a particularly bad grade on a test or paper I would have moments of self-doubt (today this might be called imposter syndrome), wondering if I was only at that school because of X,Y or Z. This is especially hard for students who have always been a stand out at their high school. This is also the case with many first gen college students, having been praised by extended family for academic achievements from an early age. Rest assured that every student here deserves to be here.

– Lastly, don’t forget how unique your background and experiences are. Celebrate your differences and embrace them.

Jennifer and her father at her PhD graduation.
Jennifer and her father at her PhD graduation.