Studying Abroad as a First-Generation College Student at an Elite Establishment

I refuse to let the pressure get to me. Walking around the hallways of this elite French school, I refuse to be intimidated. I refuse to let everyone’s ease and comfort, (their only worries the readings they didn’t complete last night or the impending presentation they haven’t started), make me feel like I’m a burden. I refuse to feel that I deserve this less, or even, that I deserve this more, which is a thought that bubbles up to the surface when I am overly-confident, partially bitter at how little everyone else has had to do to succeed as I scaled my very anxieties to get here. I refuse to bow.

 

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I’m at the Louvre so I’m smiling but deep inside I’m panicking: Will my scholarship come in time? Will I pass my classes? Will they be challenging enough to be interesting? Are there professors I’ll meet on Monday familiar with students like me in the classroom? Whatever Tammie, smile, we’re getting crepes later.

 

I have a few friends who go to my host school (or are alumni). A good friend of mine, who for the sake of this blog we can call “Nick,” attended this school and graduated, with high honors of course, and told me everything I’d need to know before attending. I know it’s wrong to come to a new place with worries and assumptions but, I’m human, and I cannot keep myself calm in almost any situation so why should this be different? Before I came here Nick told me that this school was built as a place where the French elite could educate their children; politicians and diplomats sent their kids here to follow in their footsteps, and it’s become world-renowned as a place to get your foot in the door to a successful life as a part of high-brow academic society. Many of the previous French presidents have attended this school. Almost all of the people who go here are part of the wealthy elite in whatever nation they come from; all of their family is usually college-educated. Well, crap.

 

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Pictured in the Jardin des Tuileries, one of the largest and historically most important parks in Paris. Nick took me on a bike tour, and we stopped for a moment to admire how many things there were to do right in front of us.

 

Knowing that I have quite the snappy attitude towards those who think they’re better than anyone else because of their academic or economic privilege, I prepared myself for the worst. I pictured myself living in an academic battlefield, constantly having to prove that the self-sufficient girl from New York (the Bronx, to be specific) was good enough, smart enough, and could handle what this school brought for me. Every time I thought about it, I got sick. What if I couldn’t afford to take all the same fancy trips everyone had planned? How would they feel about me going to a state school, one of the most affordable educations in the nation, coming from a CUNY rather than Columbia University, or NYU?

Fast forward some months, and voila! Here I am. Refusing. Refusing to let my own mental insecurities about my abilities affect how I present myself and how I perform at this elite institution that I absolutely deserve to attend. Refusing to disappoint my parents, who I don’t see as inferior for not having attended college, but as visionaries and angels, who sacrificed everything they’ve ever had to make my life better and more privileged than theirs ever will be. I refuse to view myself in competition with others with whom I might not relate; but rather I will let myself get to know others, and see the similarities we share in the world of academia, global travel, and professional experience.

 

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My fears were quickly relieved when I made great new friends who taught me that it’s dangerous to over-think and stereotype institutions, no matter how right I think I am. It’s important to focus on making good friendships and fostering connections, and the rest comes easy. And by the way, no one cares about your circumstances!! This is something our brains will tell us to worry about, but it’s your heart that counts, every single time.

 

To be honest, I think all first-generation college students share some of the same trials and tribulations. There is a girl here with me from my school who has become one of my closest friends in the time we’ve been here together. Let’s call her… Amara. Along with her, I’ve made good friends with an Afro-Brazilian woman (let’s call her Dascha) studying abroad in Paris, and she has struggled just like me to make it to this great university. They both understand, as fellow first-generation college students and low-income women of color, how nerve-wracking it is to be here among all of this wealth, prestige, and honor. We’ve had days, hours, and moments, when we’ve needed to confide in each other about comments made in our classes, observations we’ve seen among social groups, and implications of this institute which were shocking to us. (For example, everyone here can afford textbooks. At our home university, many professors omit them, or give much more time for students to purchase them, because working class colleges contain multitudes of people who can’t afford hundreds of dollars at once for reading material.) I am extremely grateful to you, Amara, for being a friend I confide in about these issues, who understands my anxieties, and gives me hope that we can for sure fulfill this experience without losing our self-esteem, or feeling any type of inadequate.

 

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They don’t have to understand the struggle, it’s okay. If they’re good friends, they’ll care enough to hear you out: your fears, concerns, and everything that comes with it. As long as they’re open to understanding the world, they’re alright with me. Never be ashamed of where you come from.

 

For all the first-gen students who are reading this, feeling some type of way, looking for inspiration or courage to study abroad or head off to college: look inside yourself. It will be difficult to get rid of the assumptions that society has put on us, and we will always feel slightly resentful at how much harder we’ve had to work to get here but please understand that it’s worth it. You deserve the opportunities you’ve fought for, and there’s no sense in worrying so much that you lose the ability to soak in all of the wonderful experiences, moments, and friends you will make here. Refuse to let yourself be a statistic, but make yourself a living example. Refuse to feel self-conscious, but let your different background propel you. Refuse to let the pressure get to you, use it to succeed.

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Filed under Tammie in France, Western Europe

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