Why I'm So Proud to Be the First in My Family to Graduate College

Amanda Prahl
Amanda Prahl

When it comes to college education, I was incredibly lucky. Over the course of getting a dual bachelor's degree and a master's, I got to learn from amazing mentors and get a ton of knowledge and experience. I'm especially proud because I'm the first person in my family to graduate college. Like most things, I had to overdo it just a little, but I'm glad I had the opportunity to even do that.

My parents both had near-graduations, but things didn't work out for either of them: my mother had to stop just shy of graduating in order to get a full-time job and care for a sick parent, and my father chose the trade school route and never completed a traditional degree. None of my grandparents graduated from college either — or even attended. My grandparents were largely in non-degreed working class professions: nurse's aide, factory workers, and so on.

[I'm aware of] the immense privilege I've had in getting to do this. My mother would have finished her degree, she wanted to finish her degree, but then life got in the way.

Despite not having a traditional educational background, my parents have always been incredibly encouraging of my own academic pursuits, understanding that I didn't just get my degrees as stepping stones but because I loved learning (and still do). To put it in pop culture terms, I'm a true Ravenclaw: an overachieving, highly creative nerd with a curiosity and passion for knowledge for its own sake. My parents understood this about me and gave me an environment where I could eagerly learn what I wanted to learn, even when it wasn't necessarily "practical." I was never discouraged from learning, and I think that love of learning for learning's sake is what carried me through my degrees — not trying to be a "first" or reach some goal but taking real joy in knowledge. I grew up in a household full of books and any information that any of us wanted, and I always learned that if I could read it, I could do anything — and luckily, I started reading very young.

It does make me acutely aware, though, of the immense privilege I've had in getting to do this. My mother in particular is a reminder every day that circumstance can change in an instant: she would have finished her degree, she wanted to finish her degree, but then life got in the way, and she went from being able to just be a student to having to find a full-time job and run a household. I am profoundly grateful for my immense luck in getting to live in a situation where I could go to school, double major, go to grad school, all without having to worry that I'd have to drop out or cut my hours or stay up until 3 a.m. because I had to work to have enough money to survive on. I was able to go to grad school, in a notoriously difficult and unstable field, and not have to worry that I'd go broke doing it. That's a privilege that a lot of people don't have, and I try to be aware of that and work to help others who don't have the same advantages.

It's easy to assume, in our "hustle"-obsessed world, that people who don't finish something (like college) simply didn't try hard enough. That's not true at all, and we need to be able to have discussions about the real barriers to starting and completing education. Becoming a faculty associate in the theater department of a university really hammered home this point. I learned about my students, their backgrounds, and their goals, and I watched them work hard and, in some cases, simply falter under the sheer weight of complications that life threw at them. Many of them, like me, were the first in their families to go to college or complete a degree, and they all had different stories — some the predictable, "standard" first-generation tales we hear in human interest pieces on the news, but some had much different, much more unexpected backgrounds.

Maybe I'm just cheesy, but it feels right to me that I have three degrees: it feels like it's one each for me and my parents, or at least in a symbolic way. On the day I got my master's degree, they were there watching as my head of program shook my hand and placed the hood around my shoulders. It wasn't just my achievement but one for my family, too, and I strive every day to live up to that and make them proud.