There are summer nights when I can’t sleep. Sometimes, it is because of the stuffy heat that creeps in, unrelenting even in the darkest hours. Most times though, it’s the thoughts that won’t stop running through my head — like an endless loop of fears and worries about what I am doing with my life.
As I lie awake, I’ll listen to my sister’s soft breathing beside me, and if I strain my ears I can even hear the whirring of my brother’s fan from across the room the three of us have always shared. Usually when I turn on my side, I’m not surprised to see the light on in the dining room — I’m not the only sleepless one in the family.
My father cuts a solitary figure at the table, slightly hunched over his paperwork with a cooling cup of cha beside him. Like most things in our household, the kitchen table is multipurpose: We break Ramadan fasts on its wooden surface, my mother uses it as a sewing station, and for my father, it serves as an office.
I often think of this kitchen table whenever I sit at my Harvard desk, in my Harvard house — struck with a certain kind of guilt for having the small luxury of nice furnishing when we don’t even have enough room in our apartment for my father to have a desk of his own. The feeling is one I’m sure a lot of first-generation students can attest to — a vertigo of sorts that comes from how attending a school of such privilege and prestige splits our lives.
I remember being overwhelmed the first time a professor treated my class to food at a restaurant — nervously whispering to him that I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. He was too nice to tell me that there’s not really much to do, besides well, eating — and I know it may seem silly that I worried about something as trivial as a fancy lunch. But this is just one example of so many other little things that make up the hidden curriculum that exists in a place like Harvard: navigating social hierarchies, going to office hours, knowing how to network, amongst so much more.
When you’re a first-generation student, these can be startlingly new, even foreign concepts. What makes it even more difficult is realizing that your confusion is not shared — many of my classmates likely come into this school with a kind of preparation that went beyond extracurriculars and SAT prep. There are students who can reference their parent’s college experiences for guidance, who have attended private schools that have groomed them to succeed in this environment, and undoubtedly these same students have access to circles that will support them in the professional world.
And I’ll admit that it would have been nice to have that existing structure, it certainly would’ve saved many tearful late night calls to my mother about the imposter syndrome that seemed to suffocate me on the harder days. But I never felt that I was lacking, at least not in the most fundamental parts of myself.
I am the child of two dreamers — immigrants who dared to cross oceans and time zones to seek out a better life. And I’ve grown up learning the harsher realities of that dream: snide remarks about my mother’s accent and condescending attitudes toward my father’s work clothes. It’s almost ironic to think that I now attend school with people who would consider themselves “superior” to my parents. My mother even jokes sometimes that I probably hold myself to a higher esteem, thinking that I’m now smarter than them.
Being the first in the family to attend a college institution in the United States seems to invite a division between myself and my family. First-generation students are celebrated for doing the unthinkable and pioneering a new legacy of change. But I reject this distinction, because I know from the very core of my bones that I am the product of generations of people who have struggled and survived, labored and lived. My father taught me strength, my mother taught me endurance, and for them, I will not hold this guilt for being here — this is our shared accomplishment, and it will not stop with just me.
I pull back the chair and settle into my desk, hands resting for a moment on the smooth surface. Pulling out a pen and some paper, I lean forward — there’s work to be done.
Tajrean Rahman ’20, is a concentrator in History and Science in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.