I think often of my walk back home from my bus stop after school when I was younger. I was often shaking in fear, with my eyes stinging with tears at the thought of what I might come home to—either an empty, quiet trailer to finish my homework, or an angry, drunken mother who would take her frustrations out on me and disrupt the rest of the evening.
This walk only took about five minutes each day. I would always count the trailers in each row on my street to try to calm myself down as much as I could and to try and counter my fears from mounting me entirely. I hated the feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and fear that this walk elicited in me every day. I wanted so badly to have a different life for me, my brothers, my grandmother and my mother.
On the occasions where I came home to my mother, it was incredibly hard to focus on anything except trying to survive the night. However, even if I was beaten and battered at the end of those awful nights, I would muster whatever strength I had left to try and get my schoolwork done because of the hope and support I received from people at my school. My principal, who was a father figure to me, drilled into my head the idea that education was an avenue to raise myself and my family out of poverty. He constantly assured me that I had the capability of breaking the vicious cycle of violence, substance abuse and pain that my family was caught up in by working hard in school, getting into college and getting a good job. He told me that I had the ability to save future generations of my family from suffering in the ways I had throughout my life. With these ideas in mind, I obsessively pursued these goals because it was the only hope I had at that time. I committed myself to refusing to allow this generational trauma to continue—I had to break the cycle.
I put an incredible amount of pressure on myself to do perfectly in school, sports and any other activity I was involved in because I craved the vision of the future that had been painted for me. So, with each subsequent year, I worked harder and harder while the pressure only increased. This self-imposed pressure has carried over to my life at Bowdoin, and although I have at this point in my life achieved many of my goals by just surviving long enough to get here in the first place, the stress feels worse. Now that I have “made it,” as many in my family and community like to say, the expectation that I continue doing perfectly has only intensified. But expectations are only part of the issue.
The issue with the intensity of this pressure is that every failure or setback I encounter at Bowdoin feels like I am not just letting myself down, but also letting down my family and my community. I am constantly carrying the weight of my family’s future every day. It is often incredibly exhausting, especially when I feel like I am not doing as well as I should be. It’s even more complicated because I find it really hard to enrich myself intellectually when I’m constantly preoccupied with getting my family out of the terrible situation that they’re trapped in. I often feel a lot of pressure to succeed, but simultaneously I can’t focus enough to avoid failure and feel a lot pain and shame when I do fail. This, I believe, is an experience unique to the identity of being a first generation/low-income (FGLI) student in college and is something I grapple with every day.
The time commitment of spending four years away at college is another aspect that has been really hard to deal with a lot of the time because it makes me feel stagnant in my goal of supporting my family and community. I feel deeply guilty for being the member of my family that “got out” and gets to be at a place like Bowdoin. Every day, I get multiple meals, housing, a safe neighborhood to explore and enjoy and all kinds of support. But the people I love and care about are left behind and still suffering.
This may seem like an inconceivably low bar for some, but the reality is that things that we often take for granted here at Bowdoin are out of reach for many FGLI students and their home communities. I often find myself wishing that I could switch places with the people I care about so they could all have the luxury of stability that I enjoy here, and I’d bet that many students with similar backgrounds as me would do the same.
As an FGLI student, I have come to Bowdoin under pressure. Pressure from the expectation that I will be the one to change the lives of my family and break our vicious cycle of poverty, while dealing at the same time with the traumas and guilt my upbringing afforded me. This is the reality of my existence at Bowdoin, and I share it with the hope that those who don’t really understand the FGLI experience can see that it is much more than just a title. Many of us are carrying so much that goes unspoken. It is important for the Bowdoin community to recognize this. We are here for much more than just academics. We are here for survival.