Tales of a First Gen Student

Are you Harvard?

Bleeding Crimson

The signs in the yard intend to be endearing: "Whoever you are, you are Harvard." Yet, despite (and in spite) of the College’s efforts, I’m hesitant to hang my hat on this hollow truth.

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I remember my parents telling stories of their youth when I was younger—my father’s voice holding my hand gently as he talked of his rough beginnings. I felt my fingers fold in a bit like dog-eared pages with the lilts in his tone as he recalled fonder times and the raspier dips with the not-so fond memories.

We had different views of what the world looked like at five. Mine is scary movies on rainy days with the neighbor kids, pruned fingers and blue lips in the summer, tiptoeing to the basement early in the morning to play with my siblings. His is 77 steps and kids he shouldn’t have been around, mouth run thin from constant translation, running downstairs to the bodega beneath their apartment to pay as much of the water bill as they could before the landlord turned it off again.

At fourteen I ran away from home and didn’t tell anyone. I packed my backpack with some books and a granola bar and walked to the park around the corner, sat on the swings for an hour, then went back home. At fourteen, my mother was working under the table at a bakery known for hiring Portuguese immigrants. She would be gone for hours at a time, and at the end of the week would hand her paycheck to her mother like clockwork.

Eighteen was a turning point for all of us for very different reasons. My father left for the Coast Guard to give himself a chance. My mother chose to turn her life around. I was the first in my family to leave my state, my family, and my home for college.

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The first time I walked into Harvard Yard I didn't even realize it. It was early June—everything was green, save for the golden foot of the John Harvard statue. I was on a school field trip through the Gifted & Talented program in my middle school, which attempted to incentivize us to pursue a path of higher education by organizing this trip, using Harvard as the castle on the hill exemplar. I followed the pack of students into the Yard, standing towards the back of the group while everyone vied for a spot near the statue, trying to rub the foot for good luck. We moved on with the tour quickly, and I never got the chance to touch it. I thought my hopes to attend this school—and any other school for that matter—had withered away as quickly as they had blossomed.

On the bus ride home I stuffed my thoughts and dreams and hopes and wonders of this college and this world into my backpack, tucking it away—out of sight and out of mind. I knew deep down places like this weren’t meant for me to call mine. This place was alive with intelligence and money and power, promising a greatness I couldn’t conceive as tangible with hands like mine. What was mine was dirty Jerz, a long line of farmers and laborers, people whose lives revolved around the next paycheck to sustain their families, not textbooks or pursuing higher education.

The next time I walked into Harvard Yard, I was an admitted student of the Class of 2020. This place was going to be home, was offering itself palms upturned to be mine—and I didn’t know how to reconcile that with what seventh grade me knew was true.

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I didn’t truly know what being a first-generation student meant until I came to college. Sure, it was simple to look at the parts of me that fell into the stereotypical description and understand them on paper; it was another thing, however, to feel the vertigo between Harvard and home.

Opening Days taught me this quickly. Conversations with other freshman showed that there was a melody here, an almost silent refrain that only those with trained ears can pick up on. It was implicit knowledge on how to traverse the system that was distinct between groups of peoples that began to take shape in the nascency of freshman year. For the most part, those of privileged backgrounds clung to one another. They knew the classes to take, how to ask for help, had the “ins” to all the complex extracurricular and social scenes, utilized their parents as resources on what to do in college so as to not make as many mistakes.

From inside that circle, I’m assuming that their privilege isn’t as flagrant—yet outside of that conversation, the gift of this prior knowledge is highly recognizable, and highly sought after. In lacking these tools at our disposal, other first-gens and I meander through the college experience relying on little but ourselves, making mistakes that could have easily have been avoided through programs that taught us how to ask for help, through programs that taught us the academic and social nuances of Harvard, through programs that assured us that despite wherever we’re from, we are Harvard too.

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What was mine was still dirty Jerz, Brick City and my hometown and all the tales between these two cities. What was mine is still mine, will forever be a part of me; yet, as I continue to grow in my intellectual and educational pursuits here, I realize that where I come from puts me at a systematic disadvantage from my peers. I still don’t know if I’m doing this right, if I am utilizing the breadth and depth of opportunities here to the best of my ability—but I do know that this is my home now, and I will do my best to make sure that in some way, shape, or form, I am Harvard too.

Jessenia Class ’20, is a Crimson editorial editor living in Canaday Hall. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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