Reflections on my first-gen academic journey

Nohely Peraza

I was the first in my family to receive a high school diploma. Shortly, I will also be the first to earn a bachelor’s degree. I can’t explain what it means to graduate from college without explaining my entire academic journey. 

My story has its roots in El Salvador, my parents’ country of origin. My mother lived in extreme poverty and never went to school. When she came to the U.S., she took a few months of ESL classes at our local community college, but had to stop to work. My dad did not complete secondary education. I remember as early as first grade, my mother telling me, “I don’t know how you’re going to do it, but you’re going to go to college.” I didn’t know what the word meant. I just knew it was more school much farther down the road. I could barely wrap my head around the words “high school.” I liked school and intended to keep going as long as I could. This “college” seemed like a lifetime away, but I trusted my mom when she expressed that this would offer me a better life, so that I didn’t have to work like her.

In kindergarten, I was entered into a program called the Tinsley Transfer Program — established in the ’70s to desegregate schools by providing students of color from low-income backgrounds access to school districts with better resources, and provide diversity to more affluent, predominantly white districts. From first to fifth grade, I was bussed for two hours round-trip to receive a better education. The students on that yellow bus made up the majority of the students of color in the school. This elementary school’s library alone had more children’s books than my city’s library did. I spent so many lunches exploring this library, feeding my craving for books, which I’ve loved for as long as I could remember.

For most of my life, my mother was a housekeeper. I grew up accompanying her — helping with small tasks or reading silently as she earned her pay. She cleaned in the kinds of towns where I was being sent to school to, for the kinds of people I would end up going to college with. I knew early on that the poor people of color lived on one side geographically, and the rich white people on another. I saw their large homes, pets, their own rooms, organic food and non-thrift store clothing. Their children had private tutors and lessons, and played sports. 

In fifth grade, one of my classmates’ mothers told me about Eastside College Preparatory School. She thought I would be a great fit. Despite its being in the city I grew up in, I had never heard of Eastside. I attended the open house and, like fate, realized the bus had passed it every single day, but to me it looked like an office building on the outside. This school dropped the word “college” more in one tour than I had heard all my life. I was eager to be prepared starting as young as sixth grade. I prayed to be admitted, and was — my search for college would no longer be a solo expedition. 

Seven years later, I became the first in my family to earn a high school diploma. I would not be where I am today without Eastside. I knew, from seeing my teachers, that I, too, wanted to one day inspire others with my background in the same way. I knew, from my English classes, that I would continue to feed that passion for reading and writing in college no matter where I went. 

Perhaps the greatest challenge I faced as a first-gen college student was no longer being physically at home to support my family. As I’m sure many first-gen students can attest, being the first can mean having added household responsibilities. It means translating documents. Making and answering calls. Setting up appointments. Helping with bills. Taking care of and teaching younger siblings. In going across the country to pursue my education, I knew it was going to be an adjustment for me and for my family. Nationally, only 11 percent of first-generation and low-income students earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. The workload at Williams and my home situation made me realize why. While completing my school work, I still filled out job applications, bills, forms and immigration paperwork. 

At times, this made me want to quit, but it simultaneously gave me the perspective I needed to keep pushing. My mother migrated to the U.S. not knowing English and has supported me to get to where I am today. She works two jobs to provide for me and my younger brother. Despite facing financial, physical and emotional barriers, she fueled my passion for learning. I want other kids like me to know that no circumstance is an impediment to your fiercest dreams. It’s amazing what a strong will can do with a book at hand. 

I am honored to share that starting this fall, I will be returning to Eastside College Preparatory School as the full-time ninth-grade World Literature teacher.

Nohely Peraza ’20 is an American studies and English major and an Africana studies and Latina/o studies concentrator from Menlo Park, Calif.