Many UCLA students grew up listening to their parents recount the rewarding experiences they had in college. Before they even enroll in their first classes, most have heard about the fun and academically fulfilling college culture. They not only know about the college lifestyle, but also how to get there. The importance of SAT prep classes, Advanced Placement programs, International Baccalaureate courses and extracurriculars in high school are all emphasized by parents who have already been through the American education system.
But what if your parents never had the opportunity to go to college? If you’re a first-generation student, you likely had to explain the college application process to your parents while trying to figure it out for yourself.
In fall 2016, almost half of new in-state students at the University of California were first-gen college students. Research in Higher Education found differences between “traditional” and first-gen college students’ experiences, which has been attributed to their cultural capital. This implies that parents’ education levels can affect how well their children master “the student role.”
Being a first-gen college student means more than being the first in your family to attend and complete a degree at a four-year university. For students like me, it means accomplishing the impossible, inspiring younger generations to do the same and opening up the possibilities for your family’s progress in the U.S.
First-gen undergraduates at UCLA share an incredibly difficult, yet rewarding experience.
Linda Moua hopes her first-gen status inspires future generations of Hmong students. Moua’s parents sought refuge in Thailand after the Laotian Civil War and entered the U.S. through the lottery system in 1995. Growing up in Fresno, California, Moua was never aware of the tutoring and after-school programs offered in her high school, and didn’t realize attending college would be a possibility for her until her sophomore year.
Her parents didn’t speak English and had immigrated to the country with zero knowledge of how to help their daughter get accepted to university. Her stay-at-home mom, Kai Yang, took care of her and her seven other siblings, while her dad packaged boxes for countless hours at a clothing factory.
“My parents sometimes felt bad because they couldn’t academically or financially support me, but they always believed in my goals and gave me the motivation I needed to succeed,” said Moua, now a fourth-year biology student.
During her first year at UCLA, Moua struggled to find the resources she needed to eventually become a pediatrician and knew her parents didn’t have the knowledge to guide her. She said it was challenging to adapt to a completely new environment, given that she came from a city with one of the largest urban Hmong-American populations. She contemplated whether she was meant to attend a four-year school, but through the Association of Hmong Students, Moua found her place at UCLA.
“Once you meet other students who are first-gen, you’re able to support one another,” she said. Moua’s Hmong identity motivates her to inspire others. Now, as the president of the Association of Hmong Students, she has helped host 21 local Hmong high school students for the Seventh Annual Higher Education Movement: Our Next Generation in April, teaching students about financial aid and fostering a community in college.
Thinking back to the hours her dad spent in a factory, packaging uniforms to support his family, and her mom’s dedication to raising her and her siblings, Moua feels excited and grateful to become the first person in her family to earn a university degree. She is one step closer to her goal of becoming a pediatrician, and knows her parents are proud of her accomplishments and her younger siblings are looking up to her.
Admission to UCLA seemed impossible to Sharly Rahman.
She moved to her parents’ home village in Bangladesh right after completing middle school in the U.S. There was no running water, so Rahman and her family used wells to transport it from underground. The electricity sporadically shut down, leaving them in the dry heat and turning off the little fans attached to the roof they used to cool down.
After a year, she returned to Van Nuys High School as a sophomore to complete her last three years of high school.
“Having to maneuver, having to learn the ropes, and still be at the same level as my peers, I didn’t think it was possible,” said the now second-year pre-psychobiology student.
Rahman’s parents initially entered the U.S. through the lottery system in the early 1990s. Growing up in Van Nuys, California, she was aware she didn’t have the same resources that were available to her peers. Her mom worked more than 40 hours a week as a retail employee to support her and her older brother, who assumed the role of a male guardian while her dad wasn’t present.
Rahman learned to maneuver through the college admission process with the heavy weight of being the first in her family to do so.
“My mom can sympathize, but she can’t relate,” Rahman said.
For Rahman, being a first-gen student means rewriting the precedent set by her family while also changing gender norms associated with women. She said she wants to help define what it means to be a strong and independent woman through a career in pharmacy. Her family expects her to marry right after college, but as the first woman in her family pursuing a career, Rahman said she wants to show them that women are capable of more than marriage. She would like her value to be defined by what she accomplishes and by her work as a pre-pharmaceutical student.
Her motivations come from not wanting her mother and brother’s efforts to be in vain.
“My mom cried, ‘Alhamdulillah,’ when I got accepted. College seemed like me going to the moon,” she said. “I was given an opportunity that my mom wasn’t given. I can’t waste that.”
Andrea Jazmin Gamino
Paving the path toward college for her younger sister humbles Andrea Jazmin Gamino, a fourth-year psychology student.
Gamino remembers walking out of a midterm for Chemistry 14A: “Atomic and Molecular Structure, Equilibria, Acids, and Bases,” certain that she had failed. She heard a peer from her discussion say, “That was so easy.” After talking with him some days later, he explained how he had learned the midterm material in high school; his high school also offered SAT prep courses to its students. Gamino then realized that those same opportunities were never available to her. Gamino’s school in South Gate, California, was 98 percent Hispanic – and it wasn’t until she began her first quarter at UCLA that she noticed the bubble she had lived in.
“I didn’t know how to interact with people who weren’t Latino,” Gamino said.
During her first year, Gamino only left her dorm to eat and attend classes, and went back home every weekend. The transition from the comforting and familiar community of high school to the intimidating size of UCLA made Gamino wonder who could relate to her struggles as a first-gen student.
During her third year, Gamino became a Peer Learning facilitator with the Academic Advancement Program at UCLA. After tutoring hours, one of Gamino’s tutees, also a first-gen student, shared that she felt incapable of succeeding at UCLA.
“Oh my gosh, you actually went through this, too, but you’re so successful now,” Gamino’s tutee would say. Gamino then opened up about the obstacles she faced during her first year.
Gamino also tutors for UCLA Project SPELL and is co-president of the Gates Millennium Scholars Association at UCLA. Her accomplishments bring tears to her mother’s eyes, who immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala and cleans houses for a living. She brings joy to her dad, who immigrated from Mexico and makes engines for fridges. And she brings hope to her younger sister, who wears her UCLA sweater every day and aspires to be just like her.
“I can’t believe I did it. This achievement makes me want more,” Gamino said. “I have no boundaries. I feel like I can do anything. I can make my own story and inspire my little sister.”
Third-year neuroscience student Dickson Chen finds the motivation to pursue medical school by remembering his parents’ sacrifices.
Chen’s mom immigrated from Hong Kong, and his dad from a village in Guangzhou, China. They arrived with $50, a Toyota Corolla and no knowledge of how to speak English.
“It’s crazy to realize how far they’ve come,” Chen said.
Chen grew up in Seattle and struggled to fit in. He remembers wanting to play golf with his friends in middle school and not understanding why his parents couldn’t afford to let him go. His father worked as a jeweler, while his stay-at-home mom took care of him and his younger brother.
Chen said his parents could never understand the struggles he faced during high school and college because they were never given the opportunity to pursue higher education.
As a low-income student, it’s not easy for Chen to pay $1,000 for MCAT prep classes and $100 for each medical school application. Chen was lucky enough to have a friend who loaned him his MCAT prep books, and he plans on doing paid photoshoots for students to raise enough money for his applications.
Despite the hardships Chen has faced, he said he wouldn’t change his identity as a first-gen student for anything.
“It’s given me the motivation I need,” he said. “It’s very empowering to know that you can inspire others through this experience.”
He wants to use that motivation to inspire others to pursue medicine.
Next year, through his role as vice president of the Gates Millennium Scholars Association at UCLA, Chen said he intends to start a mentorship program where UCLA GMS scholars advise local high school students on personal statements and financial aid. He remembers the hard times in high school when his parents couldn’t support him academically, and wants to be a mentor for those in similar circumstances.
“I have this privilege now, and privilege is something meant to be shared,” he said. “Being a first-gen student doesn’t mean you can’t achieve your dreams.”
Attending UCLA is a dream come true for Nicole Nukpese, considering no member of her family had the opportunity to study beyond high school.
Nukpese was surrounded by her Ghanaian culture as a child. Her grandma frequently made okra soup, wanche shitoh and peanut butter soup and fufu for her and her friends. Large-scale reunions with aunts, uncles and cousins helped Nukpese remain close with her Ghanaian identity while experiencing a different culture in Hawthorne, California.
“There’s a difference between being African in America and being a black American,” Nukpese said, recalling her challenge to balance the two cultures. Nukpese grew up listening to Ghanaian music and had difficulty relating to American hip-hop lyrics. She found differences in the flavors of the food, the traditional clothing and the English dialect spoken by black Americans in her hometown. Nukpese said her friends were surprised when she’d invite them over to enjoy Ghanaian food, and they would say, “This is so different! We thought you were black, but you’re African.”
Nukpese said her dad believed there were only three prestigious careers – doctor, pilot and engineer – and only one good university in the world: UCLA. But through her work as president for the Marine Science Academy at her high school, Nicole showed her dad there were many more career paths available to her in the U.S.
Now a first-gen college student, Gates Millenium Scholar and second-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student, Nukpese has fulfilled her goal of attending a four-year university. Her little cousins, as well as her younger siblings, now regularly ask her for guidance, hoping to accomplish the same feat.
“They’re 10 years younger than me, and they’re already eagerly asking me questions about extracurriculars, the SAT and classes they can take in high school to prepare them for college,” Nukpese added.
Her mom repeatedly tells her younger siblings to follow in their sister’s footsteps. As an aspiring genetic counselor, Nukpese intends to do something she loves, while also giving back to her community and family that have always supported her