To Be the First

The first to enter a world no one in your family has entered before.

By Kathryn Gonzales 

Ana Fuentes, 17, will be the first in her family to graduate high school, but instead of pride she feels the pressure of success that has been growing as she has achieved more than her parents ever could.

A senior at Furness High School in South Philadelphia, Fuentes was raised by Honduran immigrant parents and is the oldest of her three siblings. At a young age, Fuentes had to become her own teacher when it came to navigate the world of academics.

“I needed to get the grades in middle school and high school in order to show myself I can do it, but also my parents”, she said. “I realized I was weighed down by the pressure to show my parents and my little brothers that it can be done.”

Fuentes is one of many first-generation students from immigrant families to continue the educational journey despite the challenges that are in their way. A 2011 report from the Higher Educational Research Institute at UCLA found that within four years, only 27 percent of the first-generation students earned a bachelor’s degree; in comparison, 42 percent of their non-first-generation peers had received their degrees.

College students who have the shared status of being first-generation and an immigrant are burdened with navigating the college process, finding resources and balancing their dream and goals with those of their family to name a few. These students pursue higher education to improve their family’s socioeconomic status, which makes choosing a career path an important decision.

“It is already hard enough being first-gen but when my parents don’t know what I am going through with the college process then it’s kind of lonely,” Fuentes explained.

For many first-generation immigrant students, it is there sole responsibility to make sure they are on track to academic success, while still providing support for their family.

While these students are climbing the ladder of academic achievement in their families, they are faced with dealing with family obligations, which may create tension as students are torn between the demands of their home and family versus those of their academics.

Bernadette Sánchez, a psychology professor at DePaul University, in a 2010 study looks at the role of family obligation but through an economic context, looking at 32 high school seniors’ transition from high school to young adult life. She found in the interviews that less assimilated Latinos tend to place the needs of their immediate and extended family before themselves, focus on providing support to and spending time with family, and have interdependent relations with family members.

The less assimilated Latino students exhibit a difference between first and second generation with a difference in generation in migrant families and how that correlates to family responsibility. First generation students had more family and financial responsibilities, such as taking care of children, providing rides, and paying household bills, while second and third generation only had fewer responsibilities.

Th experience of being a first generation academically and in the immigrant family is different from the second-generation experience. “I am the one who is the first to go through graduating high school, so I have to be the one to pave the way for my little brothers,” Fuentes said. “They won’t have to face the same issues I experienced.”

First generation students are setting a trajectory for their loved ones to follow, creating a system of connection that they did not have beforehand. Fuentes is that connection between worlds that were foreign to her but do not have to be foreign to her siblings in the way it was for her.

Along with being a senior in high school, Fuentes is also working part-time in McDonalds in order to save money for college, but also to provide financial support to her family. “I started working to help my family when I was 15, so that added to the stress of trying to be there financially for my family, while also trying to get good grades in school.”

While there are pressures of family obligation, it can also act as a motivator for first-generation students. High school students will be motivated by the family obligation in their Latino households to aspire to achieve more in their education in order to pay back to their families the sacrifices they have made for them. Fuentes says, “While it’s hard, I know that I am making my family proud, especially my mom and dad because they did so much for me and my brothers.”

Being a first-generation student, you are establishing a path that no one in your family has walked. At times, it can be a lonely and confusing path, but it is possible. Fuentes along with many others has proved that the educational journey can be achieved despite the challenges.

Kathryn Gonzales covers issues involving immigrants