On Saturday May 18th, 2019, three words pierced my ears. There was a familiarity about them. Yet, as I looked out at the 5,000 faces, the meaning behind these words escaped me for the slightest of moments.
“Harry”… wait, “Nicholas”…is that, “Ervin”…me?
I had been waiting to hear those familiar words for more than four years, but I was still unprepared. Switching to autopilot, I correctly navigated the stage and the various hands being thrust in my direction. After reaching my seat, I regained consciousness and realized that I was still me.
I expected to feel different after I graduated. I made it through! It was all going to be roses and sunshine from that moment on. My past was washed away and only the future laid before me…right? I had convinced myself that once I gained a degree I would be just like everyone else, but it doesn’t work that way. I remain the pun-loving, stubborn, science nerd that I always have been. And I am still a first generation student.
Graduating From my Roots
Like a shadow, the experiences that partner with my identity still remain and always will. I still get phone calls from relatives - whose kids are approaching the end of high school - looking for advice, I still have friends who are facing the struggles I once faced, and I still find myself reflecting on the mistakes I made over the past four years. My background as a low-income, first generation student didn’t vanish with those three familiar words.
While it may sound like a sad realization, I find it quite the opposite. At my core, I remain who I always was, but that doesn’t mean nothing has changed. Graduation did not change my story; graduation added to it.
I am still the same person, but now I have knowledge and experience I could have never anticipated. I know how financial aid works, whom to speak with about specific problems, the proper way to read textbooks, how to prepare for exams, ways to communicate with professors, and so much more. However, all of this knowledge, when kept to myself, is useless.
Your Stories Have Power
While I was in undergrad, I belonged to a special leadership cohort comprised mainly of first generation students, and what a blessing that was. The ability to surround myself with people who understood where I was coming from and what I was going through was undoubtedly essential for me to reach graduation. It was here that I learned the power of my story and the stories around me. We supported and guided each other with them; most of us reached our goal.
Now that I crossed the stage, I find myself inspired by the first generation students who came before me. I watch them as they lead first generation affinity groups, coach younger siblings, friends, and strangers, and even start up entire organizations such as this one. Their knowledge is valuable and so is yours.
The work of a first generation student does not end with a degree. All the struggles, mistakes, and misunderstandings you have endured can be used for more than that piece of paper. There are countless others who stand right where you once stood and are looking for the answers you’ve already found. I urge you to share your stories and your struggles. You may not be able to change your experience, but you can change someone else’s. There are countless students who could benefit from even one of your stories, let alone a multitude of them.
How Can You Help Future Generations?
Two weeks ago an undergraduate I supervise at work asked me a simple question, “What bothers you most about this world?” The question caught me off guard, which forced an honest answer; “That people who have felt the pain of the world do nothing to alleviate it.”
As a first generation student, you are undoubtedly experiencing some form of pain. As a recent graduate who has yet to master loan payments and job applications, I continue to feel that pain. It is not without purpose though. Remember why you started this journey. Continue to strive towards your goals and add to your story, but don’t only push forward for your own sake. Do it for those who can gain from your experience.
My advice to you is to share your troubles and find comfort and strength in each other. More importantly, share your story so the next round of first generation students won’t have to feel as lost as you did.
About the author…
Harry Ervin is a guest writer for Propeller Collective. He recently graduated from Calvin University with a B.S. in biology and biochemistry. He is a first generation and low income graduate, and he will be moving to Boston to accept a research position. During undergraduate, he spent his time volunteering with children, refugees, sustainability efforts, and other first generation students. He hopes to continue that work here with Propeller Collective. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.