Tag Archives: courage

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.



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.



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.



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.



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

Reflecting on Guatemala

Right now I’m taking the train into Philadelphia to a doctor’s appointment. I’ve put off writing this for a while, but I figured that now, when I have nothing else to do, I have to start thinking about the end of my study abroad experience. Part of why I have avoided writing this blog is that I’ve been adjusting and catching up on sleep. I’ve also been meeting with friends from home and preparing my things in this quick turn around between Guatemala and returning to school.

Part of it, I won’t lie, is because I’ve picked up watching The Office and I had to get to the point where Jim and Pam become a couple. But behind all of that is my want to avoid thinking about what just happened. I feel like I’m in sixth grade, adjusting to waking up early for school for the first time, refusing to open my eyes or move my body even though I’m awake just because I know that I have three more minutes until 6:30 a.m. and maybe I’m not ready to face a return to real life yet. For a week I found myself giving vague responses like “it was amazing,” so that I don’t have to start synthesizing my adventures. Once you catch yourself in your own tricks on yourself, how can you let yourself keep playing them?

So now I’m thinking about the question my friend asked me three weeks into my study abroad: “Is it everything you thought it would be??” Wow. Fantastic question, Meg. You really nailed me to the wall on that one, making me stop saying superlatives and start thinking. Geez, I don’t know, I thought. For the most part, before this summer I just knew I would have “experiences” with no real idea of what kind they would be. I decided I would wait to answer that question until I had lived every part of my experience. I kept waiting because I didn’t want to say that it was over.

Well, was it everything I thought it would be? Heck no. Is it too cliché to say to say that it was better and more than I thought it would be? Probably, but that’s the truth. How could I have predicted anything that I did or saw this summer? Disney got one thing spot on when it said, “You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.” In my last week alone, I found out more tangible examples of what I want to be than in two years at college.

When my last week in Guatemala started, I was on a redeye bus from Tikal to Guatemala City, coming back from the oldest, most expansive, and most impressive site of Mayan ruins in the world. At the same time, my friends, Taylor and Risa, and I realized it was the end.

“We go home next Saturday,” Taylor said.

All I could think of to say back was “yeah.” To be fair, what else can you communicate in a whisper in the middle of a red-eye bus? I sat up and leaned my head against the window while I tried to make out familiar shapes from the unfamiliar shadows on the highway. No, the fact that we were leaving so soon hadn’t sunk in. I couldn’t feel anything. I don’t think it had fully hit any of us. None of us felt like saying things like, “I can’t believe we’re leaving in a week,” or “I know, right?” We felt numb but not so much that we didn’t know it would be cheap to say things we didn’t really understand yet.


On my last Monday I acted out a skit in Spanish class with my friend Aiza of our first real weekend when we went to the less-than-safe, more-than-fear-inducing-and-dangerous caves in Semuc Champey. I recalled how scared and cold I had been, how I had heard a choir of children singing “Will I Lose My Dignity” from RENT in my head, and how I had said I never wanted to go in those caves again. All I wanted now was to be back in that state of fear with a whole summer of adventure still in front of me. I watched as Nory, my lovable Spanish teacher, for the seven hundredth time encouraged us to learn through laughter and real life, and I thought, “Man, I’d love to be like her.”


Later we went to a Mayan ceremony that asked for blessings for workers and students, where the priest asked for safety, health, and success for each of us by name. We had a barbecue with one of our professors, Ricardo Lima-Soto, at his house.


See, the thing is that Ricardo is one of the most intelligent, funniest, and nicest professors I’ve ever had. He’s had more adventures than Leonardo DiCaprio in all of his movies combined. Ricardo could spark incredible debates and conversations about subalternism, post-colonialism, and racism in Guatemala with respect to the scores of different identities and nationalities in Guatemala, but somehow got us to draw just as many parallels about the intricacies and social-racial dynamics in our own country. What left the biggest impression on me was how at peace he seemed to be with himself and the world. It was not that Ricardo underestimates the problems in the world or the problems he faces; instead I think he has a perfect understanding of both and still he has a calmness, happiness, and sense of stability. As malleable, young twenty-somethings who lack this peace and clear sense of direction, my classmates and I marveled at our teacher who could talk about systemic oppression and then Minions without missing a beat or seeming like he didn’t understand the actual level of gravity or levity of the two, respectfully. We all decided at one point or another, “I want to be like him.”

On Tuesday night I had my last night with the teens and young adults in the English class at Los Patojos. I silently admired at how openly determined they were. Even if you’ve thought otherwise, the truth is that I’ve always been a little shy about saying, “this is what I want to do with my life and I am working on it right now.” But these people had the bravery to say, “These are our dreams and we’re putting them in action.” Again, as I talked to the other teachers and the students, “I thought to myself, I want to be like them.”


On Wednesday afternoon my friends and I went to Earth Lodge on top of a mountain ridge, where we talked about our summer experiences while we watched the sun set over Antigua and the surrounding volcanoes below. Then our professor, Jennifer Casolo, told us her story. Jenn became my hero probably less than two minutes into the story: she had worked for peace in El Salvador in the 1980s, been mistakenly arrested by the military, interrogated and tortured for days despite refusing to lie and name innocents as subversives, and then eventually released thanks to nation-wide support back in the United States. As I sat there, feeling like a preschooler with my hands motionless and my head tilted up to watch her without blinking, I realized I was listening to a hero. Even now on the train, I can still see Jenn, her hair tucked behind her ears, wearing colorful clothes, standing instead of sitting as if she was about to sprint with all of her excess energy, her hands alternating between motions and clasps together, and her eyes trying to reassure us as we listen in panic. Jenn was calm as she told a story more harrowing than our worst nightmares. She told us of how she had felt at the time like she would somehow be okay, and we sat there like cub scouts listening to our first ghost story, in awe and mystification at how she could be so courageous. It grew dark and we all had to go home for dinner (I know, how cute and great is that?), but we begged Jenn to meet us at a café afterwards to continue her story. We sipped our tea by candles and leaned in down the table to listen. There was a room-wide warm-golden-fuzzy-happy feeling as we heard about her adventures. This time I thought to myself, “I wonder if it’s even possible to ever be like her.”

On Thursday I went to Los Patojos and saw part of the Poetry Exposition that they hosted for all of the schools in the area. Fourth graders recited and performed poems written by current Guatemalan poets, some of who attended the event. I felt like the kids were singing songs in front of rock stars. If these kids wanted to go to the moon, I think the teachers at Los Patojos would contact the X Prize competitors and make it happen. Seeing their commitment made me want to be like them.


On Friday I said goodbye to my teachers, my roommates, and my friends and students at Los Patojos. When I started to realize it would be years before I saw these people again, I felt duped. For two months, I’ve been trying my best to acclimate myself in Guatemala and to feel and learn everything possible. I sewed my heart to this place and these people. And as I left, I felt someone pulling at the seams. I don’t think I write enough to explain how much I love this school or how Juan Pablo is my role model.


This summer I got to have real adventures, the kind I always watched in movies and assumed that I’d never get enough bravery or coolness to leave my warm couch and blanket to have. I clung to the bars of an open truck bed as we drove through the jungle of Alto Verapáz on our way to climb up waterfalls. I found out that I’m afraid of caving and bats, but I climbed and swam through caves of Semuc Champey and I walked through the Bat Palace of Tikal. I jumped off a rope swing, took a boat to a zoo in the middle of a lake, walked through an ancient Mayan ball court with a little girl in Mixco Viejo, kayaked in a lake surrounded by volcanoes in Panahajel, climbed volcanoes in Pacaya, made new friends and danced on the regular. I got to study in the peace of the most beautiful and expansive social science library in Central America, listen to speakers who have actually changed the world, have some of the best conversations, and joke with my host parents daily. Guys, I got to see a volcano every morning when I woke up. Can’t stress that one enough. But the adventures can’t compare to the people who taught me what I want to be when I grow up. (I’ve still got plenty of time before I cook my own Thanksgiving dinner, and that’s the standard of adulthood that I’m sticking to.)


So what’s next? Well I’ll go back to school at Penn State and work to earn enough to return to Guatemala as soon as I can. I’ll keep wearing the bracelets my kids gave me. I’ll take small steps as I try to get used to walking down College Ave instead of Segunda Avenida Sur. I won’t even be mad when I have to explain that I went to Guatemala and not Nicaragua, Costa Rica, or even Thailand. I’ll wish my friends back in Guatemala happy birthdays and think of them every time I see them on Facebook. I’ll do my best to not cry as I work on compiling all of the work of the kids at Los Patojos into the final book. I’ll write more of my novel. At the risk of another cliché—but hey, third time’s the charm—I promise I won’t forget this summer in Guatemala. I mean, really, how could I? I might’ve known that I wanted to be a writer and a teacher before this summer, but I never could have known the mindset and personality I wanted to have without Guatemala.


There’s just one more thing I’d like to clear up. Lucky and José, I wanted to explain to you what I couldn’t before. Whenever I’d ask for a packed lunch, you’d always play a joke on me and pretend to be inconvenienced, and I’d always get worried that you weren’t kidding. We’d laugh about it, José would say “Tranquila,” (Calm down) and then we’d move on to the next joke. Here’s the thing: Ninety-eight percent of me knew that you were kidding. How could you not be kidding? You two are the nicest, funniest, most interesting, and most welcoming host parents I could have asked for. But that two-percent possibility that I was upsetting you made me freeze because the last thing in the world I wanted was upset two of my new favorite people in the world. Man, José, I can hear you teasing me and asking me if I’m going to cry. Pretend you can hear me saying “no” unconvincingly. Lucky, I can hear you laughing. Pretend I’m saying good afternoon after class. Pretend I’m smiling because you just called me your rose or baby (sin pampers, so almost close to an adult but not—I never did acknowledge how true that is). Pretend I’m a minute late after the dinner bell and tease me about it. Anyhow, I just wanted you guys to know that I love you both and that I’ve always wanted to be like you. I promise I’ll be back soon. Jose, help a gringa out and translate this for Lucky.

Forgive me if any/all of this seemed scattered—that’s sort of how I feel. I guess it’s better to say it all like this than to not say anything. I know that there are a bunch of things I’ll wish I had written later on. But the summer’s got to end and I have to pack my dorm furniture, so count up your points, my friends, and maybe you can take away one last thing from all of this. The best I can do is to tell you that I thoroughly loved all of my life-changing fifty-six days in Guatemala, from the unbelievable adventures to the everyday chores. Que te vaya bien, hasta pronto.

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Filed under Abby in Guatemala, Central America