Thoughts from a first generation student: The struggle between family and individual will

During the first weekend of second semester, my mother, my older sister and baby nephew came up from New York to visit to me. My sister was driving to a nearby outlet mall, and my mother was in the front seat. My baby nephew was watching Inside Out on a tablet. I decided to tell them my news: I wanted to concentrate in Latino/a Studies. I had already taken one class during the fall semester, and I was determined to declare my concentration in it. It was more of a selfish reason: to understand my identity.

My mother was lost for words. She turned to me and said that she couldn’t understand why I love to hurt her. When I mentioned that it could help my career, she said, “You’re Latino already!” And then she made a quick aside to my sister that she will have to support me for the rest of my life.

My sister, while not exaggerating as my mother did, expressed similar sentiments. She said that I am privileged to be at Williams and that I am wasting my money by taking “fun” classes. Imagine being in my position, sitting in the back next to a baby while your sister and your mother expressly disapprove your decision. It was not the best situation to be in.

It was, however, a familiar situation that my aspiration conflicted with my family life. It has been a common theme as a first-generation (first-gen) student who loves humanities and despises STEM.

During high school, I told my mother that I wanted to major in English and write for a living. She, of course, disapproved of it. She told me that I should become a lawyer because I can make money there. I told her that I didn’t care about the money. She made the same aside to me that my sister would have to support me for the rest of her life.

Now, that is not to say that my family does not support me. Since I told them that I write fiction, they jokingly ask if they’re in it or when I am going to write their book. But not as a career. Not as a major or concentration. Not to support myself for the upcoming years. They don’t support that decision.

That is always the same narrative around campus: that once first-gen students graduate, they will go back to the community and uplift it with their knowledge. And, as a Latino, I need to send back money, or remittances, to my family members who do not have the same luck and privilege that I do. My sister followed the same course; after receiving her undergraduate degree, she started to support my mother. Williams is stressful enough as it is, but now there is more stress to be the best student as well as get a high-paying career. There are some days when I wish that I wasn’t first-gen and was allowed to be myself.

During the car ride to the outlet mall, my sister said that I can enjoy my four years at Williams and have all the fun I want. I can go abroad, go to parties and live my life. But I always need to think of my career and my future because that’s why I am there in the first place. She said that I do not have the privilege to waste my time. I will not have everything given to me after I leave Williams. Being who I am, I must work extra hard to achieve success.

Right there, I stopped feeling offended and understood where my mother and my sister’s frustration is coming from. They want me to have a better life, which is what any family wants. But with my family’s history and struggles, it is the main goal.

Later, at the outlet mall, while she was browsing through children’s clothes and my mother was playing with my baby nephew, my sister said that I am working for the people back on the island who are not even able to live and work in the United States. My family was lucky to immigrate to the U.S. and escape the poverty they suffered. I am here, studying at Williams, for them. I’m not deciding my future for myself but for my mother, my sister, my whole family, my community and my ancestors from the Dominican Republic, who struggled so I can be where I am today.

Sure, it is stressful that I have all this responsibility. It must be stressful for all other first-gen students who have the same pressure. Some of my first-gen friends talk about the same pressure. But I am glad to have professors and students at Williams who understand and to whom I can talk. I am grateful that there is an orientation, with the help of Dean Rosanna Reyes and all the orientation leaders, at Williams for first-gen students.

My situation, along with the other first-gen students at Williams, is not horrible, nor is it perfect. It just is.

Leonel Martinez ’20 is from New York. He lives in Dennett.