A Double Life: The Thoughts of a First-Generation College Student

Zuher Ibrahim
Zuher Ibrahim

As a first-generation college student, not a single day goes by that I do not think about my family and consider their sacrifices. For my family and I, attending college is the highest honor. While some may say “no pressure” when it comes to grades and coursework, that’s simply not true. There will always be pressure. 

Growing up, I always strived to be the best in everything I did. My hard-work was always met with a reminder that I have to work two times as hard to get half of what others may have. In the words of my father, “You have to get A+, A+, A.”  Here’s a gif of me in cartoon form as a young student!

Despite coming home to show my parents a report card filled with straight A’s, it wasn’t their first reaction to shower me with praise or excitement. It’s what they expected. From my experience, this response, or lack thereof, is common amongst first-generation parents. 

Another commonality of first-generation parents revolves around mental health. It’s not something I grew up talking about and when I started college, it was clear my parents either weren’t accepting or understanding of the role mental health plays in all of our lives. 

First-generation college students are likely to experience the same hurdles non-first-generation students would. Those hurdles can grow in size when layers of additional factors come into play. Lack of support from family and friends and varying levels of academic preparation put first-generation college students at a higher risk for mental health problems

To be honest, being a first-generation student feels like living a double life sometimes. There is a lot of uncertainty and insecurity in a world that often doesn’t want to see us succeed. While our stories may be that we’re trying to do well in school, maintain leadership positions, work a part-time job (or several jobs), and support the family … it just never feels like enough. Not when our parents took what they could to support our families here and abroad. Not when our families learned a new language and new social culture when they were foreign to this land. Not when our families tried to support one another in their communities.  Not when my dad escaped war as a teenager. 

When I reflect back on my own college experience as part of the Class of 2020, I think back to the first time I did something truly for myself … picking my major. My parents, more than anything, wanted me to be a doctor. While I had always been good at science, I hated it. It didn’t interest me and it wasn’t something I could devote the rest of my life to and see my mental health decline. I couldn’t continue to strive to be a perfect student or the best daughter while completely ignoring my passions of policy reform, working in government and eventually creating my own non-profit with a mission dedicated to education access back in Ethiopia where I’m from. 

I began my freshmen year listed as Undecided. When originally registered for BIO101, I went into class on the first day and after analyzing the syllabus, I left. I emailed my professor and asked to be switched into a different course and never looked back. I knew, looking at my syllabus, that if I remained in Bio, I would have stuck with these classes until they drained me. Instead, I enrolled in ANT101, Introduction to Anthropology, where we discussed what my professor considered to be the top 5 systems of oppression and looked at cultures from around the world. Soon after, I declared a Political Science major. It was in my sophomore year that I declared both my minors and my second major in History.

I worried about what my parents would think and so I hid my decision from them for a year. When telling them, I had to do it over the phone; I couldn’t handle having to look at their faces and see disappointment in their eyes. I remember the words of my mother trying to rationalize it by saying it was a phase or I would be the doctor of the family and there was no greater honor than that. Whereas my dad supported me despite remaining hesitant, he listened to me. 

My parents have always wanted me to succeed, though it took until I was at the peak of my college career to realize they didn’t want it (school and work) to come at the cost of my own health. My parents said to me, “Maybe you should take a break from everything you’ve got going on.” My parents didn’t know much about my schedule beyond knowing I had jobs, internships, and that I was involved. All they saw was me going in and out of our home, enduring sleepless nights and leaving in the morning before they even woke up. 

When my parents suggested I take some things off my plate, they were talking about my mental health, it’s just they never mentioned the words “mental health.” Growing up in an African household, it was seen as a taboo topic to discuss. I had to learn how to balance what my parents expected of me and what I expected of myself all while trying to maintain my mental health and self-care. The expectations and my mental health were often in competition with one another. This tug-of-war on top of my limited exposure to mental health related conversations made it difficult to navigate all that I was balancing. Talking to my parents about taking a break for myself was one of the first steps we made towards recognizing mental health as a priority, even if the words “mental health” weren’t used directly. 

Today, I’m  twenty-one years old and a proud college graduate. I plan to pursue my Masters in Public Policy or Political Science and I know I have my parents’ support. 

To my fellow first-generation college students: while our parents’ journey may have been affiliated with struggles, that doesn’t mean ours has to be. We’re allowed to be our own individuals. We can strive to be our best selves without putting our mental health on the back burner. We can pursue our passions and remember the sacrifices our parents made.

As I enter the “real world” of working full-time and pursuing my Masters and eventually my PhD, I hope that I can look back and know I made my parents and myself proud.