You made it to college, congratulations!
You made it to college as a first-generation Latina and you're going out of state or even a few hours away from home? Double kudos to you.
College is a wild ride for us all. Yes, you're going to have the adventure of a lifetime. You'll do the partying, the stay-up-all-night studying, and the bragging about both. It's usually a fun time for many of us. While I don't think you'll need preparation for the fun, you will need some guidance for the things no one tells you about.
As a first-generation college student and Cuban immigrant, I left my warm sunny-side-up town, Miami, to pursue a bachelor's degree in college-town central: Amherst, MA. There were many reasons for my decision, but mostly I wanted to explore something different — and boy, did my experience deliver. As my old literary companion Robert Frost once worded it, it really did make all the difference.
So if you're headed toward a similar path, you're about to enter a beautiful and transformative period in your life. Here's what you need to know.
You'll sound different.
This is especially true for students who come from big cities living in immigrant neighborhoods. I want you to know that you will sound different when you speak, and it may or may not be challenging in many ways, but it will teach you an important life lesson: your right to claim your space.
In Miami, I had no idea I even had an accent — everyone sounded like me. In Amherst, my accent was so pronounced, I heard it, and heard about it every day. At first, I'll admit it became an impediment to my speaking up in class and sharing my thoughts with friends. And because I didn't think having an accent was OK, I struggled to minimize it as much as I could. It was only until I found people who spoke like me — or with some kind of accent — that I was able to feel a little less phonetically alone. So, yes, at times you might feel ashamed, shy, or upset that you don't sound like your average American classmate, but don't worry. It won't always be this way, and soon you'll learn to use your voice as your asset.
You should find people like you, even if you don't think you need to.
When we decide to go away for college, we generally want everything new and nothing of the old. You might not want to make friends with the same people you knew from high school per se, but you'll definitely want to find a community of people who understand your background, because not everyone will. If you're going out of state, a lot can become a culture shock, such as the foods you eat — yes, people will think you're weird for eating a banana with rice and beans, but they will also love to learn about it.
One of the things that kept me warmest during New England winters were fleece sweaters. The second was my Latinx community, getting together to make foods we could easily find at a bodega in our hometown and, dare I say it, speaking the language we so resented growing up: Español.
Social status will — sort of — be a thing.
It won't be an extremely important thing, but it'll be more present than in the past. At least it was for me. The North Face backpack, Ugg boots, and Lululemon leggings my friend from Maine could afford were not accessible to me — not that a Miami girl really had any desire to wear Uggs, but you get the gist. It was one of the first times I saw class thrown in my face.
It's OK if you can't go abroad for a year, and it's OK that you didn't take a year off.
People who can afford to take a year off will be talking all about it and the things they did during that time. These days, I am very open to taking a year off, but had I told my Cuban mom who worked all her life so I could go to college that I wanted to take a year off, she would have most definitely laughed in my face.
Similar to taking a year off, studying abroad is not something everyone has the luxury of doing. There are added costs and lots of planning to take place. It might be an option for you if you plan ahead or if your parents planned for it. If you don't find that feasible for you, just know it's OK, it's not the end of the world, and certainly not the end of your professional future.
Say "yes" often.
Say "yes" to staying out late one night even when you have an 8 a.m. class. Say "yes" to going to a party with a new friend. Say "yes" to pulling that all-nighter to make up for slacking. Say "yes" to saying "no" sometimes, because school is more important. Say "yes" to staying at your friend's house in another state one weekend. Say "yes" to finding the money to buy a flight home when you need it — and you will need it.
There's a place for everyone in college. You're going to love it most times, hate it sometimes. You're going to thrive. And best of all you're going to find out just how loudly you're capable of speaking up.