Too Big To Fail? Why Failure Is So Hard for First-Gen Students

Estimated reading time ~ 4 min
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Image courtesy of TONL.

Many first-generation students carry a tremendous load on their backs. We’re told to get good grades, secure employment, excel in this new country, retain your cultural ties, always push forward, and lastly, work, work, work. Each expectation is a stone adding weight, which can ultimately crush you if they go unchecked.

Our parents left everything — their homes, their families, their livelihoods — to pursue a better life in an unknown country under the pretense that we could one day be doctors, lawyers, and engineers and have a true shot at the “American Dream”… and then you just dropped pre-med. Houston, we have a problem.

As the first American-born daughter of Jamaican immigrant parents, I have, on many occasions, felt like my successes were “community successes.” Every move I made from elementary school to college was broadcasted to and celebrated with family and friends who had emotionally invested in my progress. This pedestal can be so uplifting and encouraging — until it’s not. I distinctly remember having an identity crisis my freshman year of college, when I was struggling academically for the first time. I truly felt ashamed whenever an uncle or godmother inquired about my transition into Cornell. Their sagas, recounting the trials and tribulations of immigration to America, and their praises, reminding me that I would be the first person in our family to “make it,” suddenly felt stifling. How could I let them know that I was drowning? How could I let them know that I was not as perfect as they had been led to believe?

When our parents seemingly sacrificed everything to give us a better life, and we encounter what seem like insurmountable challenges, success can feel like a mandate with no emergency hatch. It often begins to feel like we’re too big to fail, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

1. Live your life.

At some point — whether it's your high school graduation or in the middle of that graduate program that you’re only doing to please your parents — you are going to come to the realization that no one can live your life but you. It will be hard. And terrifying, actually. Deviating from the game plan takes courage, but your mental health is worth it. Success should not be an all-or-nothing ultimatum. We have to learn to separate our fear of letting ourselves down from the fear of letting our communities down. (The same aunts who will question your rationale for starting a fashion line, will be the first to ask for a discount when it takes off.) Your sense of responsibility to your family may be tremendous, but the resilience and resourcefulness that has been instilled in you from day one can be channeled into career paths and lifestyle choices that can take you to new heights.

2. Have contingency plans.

After the “Guess what? I’m no longer going to law school!” revelation, naturally, the first question will be, “What’s next?” There is nothing wrong with pursuing a career path while simultaneously researching and nurturing tangential interests. Something piques your interest? Check it out. Meet someone with a job that interests you? Shoot them an email. Discover a new passion? Invest in it. Explore the unknown, so you know your options. More than ever, the options to succeed in this new market are wildly diverse, and some of the best opportunities seem abstract until you have encountered them. Options are your friend.

3. Talk about it.

It wasn’t until I attended an annual mental health awareness event during my sophomore year (and watched so many of my peers break down) that I realized something: the first-gen pressure to succeed is crippling us. And worst of all, we don’t talk about it. We are taught to put on a brave face and push forward while silently, and often singularly, trying to figure everything out. No twenty-something has his or her life truly figured out, and bearing this pressure in silence can lead to confusion, shame, and depression. People, especially your family members, may not understand what you are going through unless you tell them. I will never forget the time, after weeks of putting on a brave face, I vented to my uncle about my difficulty finding an internship. He then connected me with his doctor’s friend’s coworker, who ultimately helped me secure my first "real" internship. There is so much power in asking for help. There is so much power in knowing that you are not alone. When you start to voice your experiences and seek out assistance, you will be surprised who is also experiencing similar circumstances or is willing to help you move forward.

4. Realize that there is no success without failure.

The sky is blue. The Earth is round. You are going to fail. Embrace it. Learn from it. Talk about it. And try again. It is from these obstacles that you’ll learn the most about yourself and have the best chance at making your family, no, yourself proud.

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