"First Generation College Blues"
“What am I doing here?” I wondered, sitting in a room that smelled of varnished wood and moth eaten books. I knew why I had been called to the office, but why had I agreed to come to this small, prestigious, liberal arts college? In the stillness of the room, I could hear the ticking of the grand, old clock. It had a shiny plaque I could not read from where I sat. I imagined the words – A gift from the class of 1954 – inscribed on it, or some such thing. A large, porcelain bowl sat on a polished mahogany coffee table. It was imprinted with dusty rose etchings of one of the original campus buildings, dating back to the 1820’s. It would never be used as a receptacle for anything, it was not meant to be useful, it was meant to be symbolic – A symbol of things achieved, of tradition, and membership – A trophy perhaps. The carved details on the fireplace mantle, the upholstered furniture, the heavy drapes, the incredibly detailed woolen rugs that protected the shiny hard wood floors, all of it suggested wealth and privilege, a world I read about in novels, saw in movies, and had imagined. Now I was a part of it, but not really. Feeling like a rude guest in someone else’s home, I stopped exploring the room with my eyes, and relaxed my grip on the arms of the chair.
The academic dean was sitting behind the desk reading my file. We hadn’t made eye contact yet, and that was fine. I didn’t want him to look at me. I was already feeling ashamed, and I was afraid of what I might see in his eyes – reproach, pity, indifference? This was a mistake. They had made a mistake.
The balding, middle aged, school administrator, finally looked up. “Rosanna, it looks like you’ve been having some academic trouble.”
He pronounced my name the way most White Americans do, so that it rhymes with “banana”, and I hate that nasal “a” sound. It’s a repellent, annoying sound that invokes brashness. I much prefer the way my mother says it – so that the “a” sounds like “ah” – but at that moment, in that room, and under those circumstances, even if he had said my name just the way I like to hear it, it would have sounded harsh. I was ashamed to be there, and that he had to say my name at all.
“Last semester you failed calculus, and earned a D in economics. We’ve allowed you to take calculus again this term so that you can fulfill the math requirement for graduation, but your professor reports that you’re not doing much better.”
I tried not to blink so the tears that had been pooling in my eyes would not spill over onto my face. I had never been in academic trouble before. This was not characteristic of me. This was not part of my profile, and it disturbed me. What does it mean that I’m doing poorly in school? Am I stupid? How did I make it this far? Had I fooled all my previous teachers? I was feeling resentment towards them now. They said I was smart. They said I could do this – That I have what it takes. They lied to me.
“How have you been addressing your difficulties in math Rosanna?” He continued.
“I’m working with a peer tutor several times a week. I don’t know…I don’t know why…I’m just not getting it.” I stammered, feeling embarrassed and apologetic.
“Well, that’s good. I mean it’s good that you’re getting the extra help because you have to pass math to graduate. You also have to maintain a good academic record in general.”
He didn’t say I would be expelled, but we both knew that Amherst College would not tolerate a poor academic record for too long.
“Have you considered counseling?” He asked.
I felt my face get hot again, and my guts tighten. Yes, clearly, there was something wrong with me.
My “counselor” was a slender, middle aged, white woman, with coiffed blond hair, natural looking makeup, and shiny studs in her ears. She wore cable knit sweaters, tweed pants, and sensible, quality loafers – the kind of understated affluence that suggests upper-middle class New England. I imagined many of my peers at Amherst would look like her in twenty years. How could I explain to her what I was feeling? How could she possibly understand? What could she possibly say that would make me feel better? It didn’t matter, because she didn’t ask me about my family, or what my life had been like back home. She was only interested in listing the strategies I should use to improve my academic performance.
“Yes, I’m in counseling.” I almost whispered.
“Good. Unfortunately, we’re still going to have to put you on academic probation this semester. You have until the end of the year to bring up your grades.”
I nodded, eyes downcast.
“Good luck Rosanna.”
That was it. That was the extent of our meeting. I walked out into the chill of early spring. There were still mounds of dirty snow here and there, in places where it had been piled during the last snowfall, but I could see little blades of grass, and crocuses, fighting to break through the frozen soil on some of the lawns. As I walked away from the hundred-year-old stone building, I felt like there still wasn’t one adult in the entire place who knew me. None of the adults, not one, had taken any time to get to know me. Not even the counselor. I suppose, if I could have talked to my parents, things might have been better, but I couldn’t talk to them about it either. There wasn’t anyone I could talk to about what I was going through. I was the first generation in my family to attend college, and I was away from home. This was not something they could help me with, or understand. Sometimes, when I spoke to them on the phone, I couldn’t keep myself from crying. They worried of course, and asked what was the matter, but I couldn’t tell them the truth. I couldn’t tell them that I was struggling, that it was too hard, that I was unhappy, because they might ask me to come home. I didn’t want to come home – not really. I knew that I was doing something no one back home had done, and I did not want to fail. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, especially myself. So I told them I was a little homesick. That’s all. No big deal.
I was so embarrassed about having been called into the Dean’s office. I didn’t want to talk about it with anyone, especially my peers, because I thought it would confirm what I believed they already suspected: that I didn’t belong there, I wasn’t smart enough, I was a fake. I went back to my dorm room that afternoon, and said nothing to my roommates. They were nice girls. They would have expressed plenty of sympathy, and offered words of encouragement, but that would have hurt my pride even more.
My roommates were Lily and Sarah. Lily was a Chinese American, from Texas, and both of her parents had professional careers. They were architects or engineers. She played the guitar, and became involved in an organization called Christian Fellowship on campus. She fell right in place. My other roommate, Sarah, was a Jewish-American, from California. Her mother was a university professor, and her father a neurosurgeon. She loved music as well, and played the flute. She knew the soundtrack to Les Miserable by heart, and sang along everyday, while she did her work in our room. I didn’t play an instrument, and I never played my music out loud, only through my earphones. I was afraid my Spanish music, or the popular rap and hip-hop to which I listened, would sound unsophisticated and I would be judged.
Sarah had an older brother who also attended the school, and he introduced her to his friends. I tagged along sometimes with Lily or Sarah, and people were polite enough to me, but I couldn’t relate much to what they talked about: Their suburban high schools, tailgating parties, family vacations to tropical rain forests, summer camp experiences. I had nothing to contribute to these conversations, and I did not feel safe sharing stories of my own. I only listened, but if I had had the courage to share, this is what I would have said about what life was like at home:
I grew up in Washington Heights, New York City – a neighborhood of Latino immigrants, many of us undocumented. The kind of place where you could buy antibiotics from the pharmacist without a prescription, and get your hard drugs at the bodega, but to me, it was home, and I felt safe there. We shared the neighborhood with other immigrants: Eastern European Jews, Orthodox Greeks, and a splattering of Blacks and Asians from a variety of countries, but Latinos were the majority, particularly from the Dominican Republic, like my parents. If I walked east a few blocks from where I lived, to St. Nicolas Avenue, I could haggle with unlicensed street vendors; their merchandise sprawled on the sidewalks, and purchase fresh caña, agua de coco, and empanadas from makeshift carts. Merengue blared from passing cars, open windows, and many storefronts, where men gathered to play dominos on card tables. Little girls with multiple pigtails, fastened tight with colorful elastics, followed their mothers, or maybe their sisters or their grandmothers. You couldn’t tell generations apart sometimes. If you looked around, you could see every imaginable shade of brown.
My public elementary school was a K-8. I remember the metal grates that covered each of the windows, and the shiny gray paint that covered all the floors of the gray brick building. One of us discovered that if we rubbed the soles of our sneakers in just the right way it made a squeaky sound. Squeak! Squeak! Squeak! The principal flipped his lid when he realized we were doing it intentionally, and threatened to keep all of us in at recess if we continued squeaking, so we stopped, because detention meant sitting at an empty lunch table in silence, instead of going out into “the yard”. The yard was a large rectangle, surrounded by a chain link fence at least thirty feet high, painted a cheerful blue. The fence kept us in, and undesirables out. Security guards stood by the entrance gate to make sure. The yard had a couple of net-less basketball hoops, and the girls were handed some jump ropes. That was the extent of the playground equipment. We were told to use our imaginations.
My brothers, and friends, and I spoke Spanglish during recess, at home, and around the neighborhood. We adopted English words and pronounced them the way we heard them in Spanish: For breakfast we might eat “Conflé con leche” (cornflakes with milk). My mother might tell us to put “el cou en el close” (the coat in the closet). When we were sick, she rubbed “vivaporú” (Vick’s Vapor Rub) into our chests. We also switched from one language to the other seamlessly.
“I’m hungry. Voy pa’ la bodega to buy some chips. Tú quieres algo?”
“No thanks, mami cooked arroz con pollo, I’m having dinner en casa.”
Our teachers, all of whom were White, and did not live in our neighborhood, didn’t like it when we spoke this way. They gave us disapproving looks, and told us to “speak English correctly”. We knew the difference, but we did it because we could, and they could not.
In the summer, in a good year, when my father received plenty of overtime, or did a lot of side jobs under the table, we might be able to visit our relatives in the Dominican Republic, and enjoy the beaches there. If we couldn’t travel back to the island, we spent the summers playing in the street, or the local park, which was mostly paved in asphalt. One of the neighborhood men might use a wrench to loosen the nut on the fire hydrant, letting the water gush out, and the kids cool down. Or maybe, once or twice, in a New York City summer, we made the two-hour ride to Sunken Meadow State Park, to wade into the murky waters of the Long Island Sound. These are the things I could have said to my new college friends, but I did not have the courage. I felt ashamed.
Shame was a feeling I experienced often during my years in college. The fall of my freshman year I had to deal with my first Homecoming Weekend. The schedule of events for that weekend had been published: A meet and greet with the President of the college; several lectures on a variety of topics which would seem esoteric even to most college educated people; performances by a number of a cappella groups; and of course, the Sunday afternoon football game against our equally privileged rival, Williams College. Dilemma: What would I do with my parents if they came? Who would they talk to? My parents didn’t speak English, and they didn’t know anything about American football. They couldn’t afford to stay at a hotel. Should I have them drive four hours to see me, only to have dinner, and then drive four hours back? I tried to gauge their feelings about the topic, but the thought of their visit made me anxious. I told them they shouldn’t make the long drive, and I had a lot of work to do.
“Don’t worry about this weekend mami. It’s not a big deal.” I said.
Alone I might have been able to blend in, but I was afraid that my parent’s presence on campus would highlight how different we were, even more. So they didn’t come, and I did not go home. I had to save that money to buy a bus ticket later in the fall, to get home for the Thanksgiving break.
It was the beginning of the spring semester and I was still feeling lost, adrift. I was still struggling with calculus, and economics – a class of about sixty men and four women. The four of us sat in the back row. When I looked around the room, I saw male, White faces almost exclusively, and I thought, “What am I doing here?” That class represented an even more drastic social and demographic reality. I listened passively to the professor, and interacted with very few of the students. I struggled, but I passed calculus and economics, and decided never to take another course in those respective departments again.
When it was time to choose courses for the next fall semester, I decided to explore other disciplines: Women and Gender Studies, Latin American History, Sociology, Psychology. I discovered that there was more diversity in these classes, and that I had some frame of reference for these subjects. I had something to contribute, and did not feel as out of place. Even though I still struggled with feelings of inferiority, I began to enjoy my classes more.
Things improved most dramatically in my third year at the college. I had taken a couple of psychology courses the previous year, and was becoming more and more interested in the subject. That year, Amherst hired a visiting professor to teach in the Psychology, and African American Studies departments. Her name was Dr. Ira Blake, a Black woman, with a PhD. There were relatively few women teaching at the college, and even fewer women of color, perhaps not any. Professor Blake was only going to be there for a year, and after reading her bio, I decided I would enroll in a class with her for the fall and spring. Her interests lay in the intersection of psychology and education. I remember discussing things like: language acquisition, cultural styles of childrearing, and the impact of socio-economic factors on the school aged child. I saw myself reflected in some of the case studies we explored, and found I could provide the class with invaluable insight. Professor Blake met with me individually, and engaged me in conversation about my experiences. Her feedback on my papers was validating, and encouraging. She helped me explore my interests, and allowed me to tap into my strengths.
I began to look at my situation through a wider lens, not through the narrow eyelet focused on my personal suffering. I wasn’t affluent, and I had not arrived at Amherst College with the cultural capital that most of the other students had, but I was still there, learning, making my way through the system, and excelling in my area of interest. If Ira Blake could stand before a class at Amherst, then maybe I did belong there, and I could aspire to do the same some day.
In the spring of my senior year, graduate school acceptance letters poured in. I could have my pick, and settled for the Harvard Graduate School of Education. My parents drove up for graduation in their old Toyota station wagon, wearing their Sunday best. This time, I wanted them there, and as close to the front as possible. It didn’t matter that they couldn’t understand most of the words during the ceremony, as long as they could hear my name being called, see me walk across the stage, and receive my diploma.